Originally written 01/24/2015. Revised 03/23/2020.

19th of Trianom, 1212AP

Furmount is, perhaps unsurprisingly, best known for its high traffic of fur trade. Situated 300 kilometers northeast of Velundane and 250 kilometers west of Kersol, the small town’s only visitors were traders passing through and selling their wares, pirates masquerading as traders, hidehunters, or other more reclusive vagabond types. Big game hidehunters had long recognized Furmount as the premier location for the Chase.

In recent years, the Chase had become less a feat of strength and more a rite of passage. Most everyone in Furmount engaged in it at some point or another, for food, for pelts, or just for the fun of the hunt. Although the term originated with the yearly pelt collecting tournament, the Chase is now widely used in reference to any form of hunting, in season or other. In Furmount, however, there was no such thing as hunting season.

Perhaps there should have been.

May clambered over the ridge ascending the mountain, her brown leather boots worn and sturdily gripping the mossy rock below her. She’d been no stranger to the Chase growing up. From a young age, her father had trained her in trapping, tracking, and in archery. Being small had aided her in learning to conceal herself in the brush, or to hide her own tracks. And as she had grown into her skin as an adult, her craft only became more impressive.

She brought home some of the town’s best hides: mountain cub, black bear, and even the occasional carabrin dog. But this was expected of her, and rarely ever did she get the praise she rightly deserved. Anything less would be disappointing, coming from the daughter of Burelik Aresha.

Her father Burelik was, indisputably, the greatest hidehunter in the past century. The amount of fur and hides he’d collected for trade in the annual Chase was staggering. In years past he would return to town early for sheer convenience. On his trip back into Furmount after the week’s endeavor, his colleagues would genuinely gape and comment at the state of his overladen mule. The poor thing collapsed so often under the weight of the Chase, her father had eventually opted to set up camp with a few mules.

Burelik’s greatest claim to his skill was that he had felled Skalthog, Last of the White Elk. A legendary beast, made even more infamous for the fight it gave Burelik. All knew the tale. Skalthog’s immense spider-like antlers now rested above the doorpost to his home. Her home. May lived forever under the shadow of her father Burelik and the great Skalthog. And every time she left her house she felt the weight of their unrivaled legend.

But when she left her house this time, she barely noticed. Her father had been away for weeks, in search of several hidehunters that had gone missing. They had not been seen since last month’s Chase. It was a dangerous sport, no doubt, and many made mistakes. Many lost their lives even. But it was unlikely this group of hidehunters would all go missing however. ‘Four of the town’s best?’ And now her father was missing too.

‘He had never gone missing before. It can’t be possible.’ She played these words over and over in her head, as silly and useless as they were. May pulled herself up the steep incline, using the outstretched roots and tree trunks to her advantage. She had found that the best way to climb was to distribute her weight (minimal as it was) between her lower and upper body. The implied inconvenience of the innumerable small trees that littered the mountainside, each located less than a yard from the next, was a personal convenience for May. She lifted herself up and through the tangled mess as much with the downed tree limbs as she did on the ground itself, making her tracks nigh indistinguishable. But years of traversing the thick brush as deliberately as she had had made her climb swift and agile. A relentless shifting of body and leather and hair.

She didn’t bother stopping for the deer she passed, or the rabbits, or the treerags – she barely noticed. May could think of nothing other than the task at hand. She followed the familiar tracks of her father’s boots as they ascended. She had found the prints only yesterday, after she had almost given up the last of her hope. There was no mistaking the curve of the boot’s edge, or the way her father favored the balls of his feet. Other, older trails also rode up the path parallel to her father’s footprints, but they had mostly been worn away. ‘Most likely the path he had been following himself.’

She thought back to what the merchant traders in town had told her earlier in the week. “I’m sorry to tell you, dear. If your father hasn’t brought them back by now, no one will. No one can. And if he hasn’t come back himself… Well. It doesn’t bode well.” She knew they implied that they believed he’d befallen the same fate as those that had gone before him. ‘Traders? Traitors more like. The lot of them.’ She kept on.

She knew they would avoid the paradox hole just ahead, by the tip of the eastern rock ridge, and they had – the prints in the mossy soil diverged from that path. ‘The unnatural place.’ Even the game knew better than to go near it. The grass grew red-tinged and long, and the growth cycles of the trees was sped up and warped. No. Her father, the other hidehunters, they wouldn’t have lost their way there.

Indeed their tracks led north, away from the paradox. She was now reaching the top of the mountain. The trees were slowly becoming more and more interspersed, the tips of their green frosted over by the cold damp of the morning. She reached a large clearing eventually, and allowed herself a breather. Inhaling was difficult at this altitude, but living on a mountain herself came with some adaptive perks. The tracks were fading now, as the dew that covered them had flaked into a thin layer of ice in the days since.

A cloud rolled over the mountain, enveloping May in thick fog. And for a moment all was tranquil. And then she heard a branch break. She looked about but could see only the things a few yards around her. ‘What was that?’ This altitude leant very little opportunity for animals to graze. But here she was, at a place where, clearly, several hidehunters had made their way, for Chase or other.

The rattled breathing of… something, could be heard, if she craned her ears a certain way. “Father?” No response. “Papa. Is that you?”

She inched towards the noise, gradually. It made no response other than continuing its rattled breathing. She held her emotions in check, not giving herself the time to process what it could mean. It sounded like a man who’s lungs had collapsed, but she had quickly abandoned the idea as too pessimistic. And still it shook. And it grew louder as she came nearer.

She felt the ground shake ever so slightly as another twig was tripped. May stopped moving abruptly. ‘How could anything make this… this noise? Collapsed lungs or not.’ The fog dissipated then, slowly as if in a dream. Whatever had made the hoarse sounds silenced, ever so briefly, as it allowed May to visualize itself for the first time.

She felt sick at the sight. Not solely from the disgust she felt at the shape of the figure before her. She felt sick for what had befallen the unprepared hidehunters. And sickness at what the thing had likely done with her father. She took a staggered step backward as the rattling wheeze began again, the thing starting forward. A creature such as this had never been seen near Furmount as far as she was aware, but she knew exactly what it must be.

Turning to run, she bellowed “RATTLEHULK!” May notched an arrow, and while taking a leap into the trees behind her, spun to let it fly.