The Beast of Saltern
A native of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, Austin Worley writes speculative fiction and poetry. His published stories include heroic fantasy, Weird Westerns inspired by the rich history of his home state, and genre-bending tales starring the vigilante Whippoorwill. When he isn’t writing, Austin enjoys amateur astronomy and astrophotography, reading, video games, and spending time with his family. You can follow him on Twitter @AMWorley_Writer.
Despite the fly buzzing around his face, Sir Owen Gibbs didn’t move a muscle. Not even when a salty breeze rocked the bough where he perched. Instead, he stared at a crimson stain on the beach below. Glistening blood pooled around the half-eaten goat staked out here as bait, while duller splotches were the only trace of an elderly workman slain on his way to the salterns that lent the nearby village its name.
I never should’ve waited out that storm in Bredon. Maybe the poor grandfather would still live if he’d braved the driving rain. Maybe he would’ve already bagged the man-eater folk had dubbed the Beast of Saltern.
Teeth grit, Owen fit a bolt into the flight groove of his heavy crossbow. Just one more thing to regret… At least sitting up over a kill offered him a chance to avenge the salter and everyone else who’d fallen victim to the Beast. If the man-eater didn’t think this place was safe, he would’ve dragged the goat somewhere else instead of eating in the same spot where he’d devoured the old man. He’d return for a third meal sooner or later.
Now, now, Owen reminded himself, could be a she. Some ice bear sow or mountain tigress come down from the Tuthei Shey in search of easier prey. Folk did claim the Beast was of a similar size. Then again, he wasn’t sure how much stock he put in those accounts. Nobody with a good look at the man-eater had lived to tell the tale, so eyewitness reports were fleeting and contradictory. Some described it as decidedly feline, others said stout and bulky like a bear, and a few sounded downright demonic.
Personally, he doubted most of them even described the same creature. Sightings ranged from the foothills of the Tuthei Shey all the way down the coast into Tarith, and rumor held the Beast of Saltern responsible for almost two hundred deaths over the past year. Ridiculous. Folk had probably just attributed unrelated attacks and disappearances to a particularly vicious bear or a white Sheyn tiger. Maybe even a lion who’d wandered up from Yeniden or escaped some circus. Over his long career as a royal forester, he’d witnessed stranger things.
Clouds drifted across the face of the brightest moon, and Owen instinctively tensed at the deepening darkness. Was this how humanity spent its nights in ancient days? Huddled up in the trees and caves of primordial Talmenor? Hiding from predators? At least the gods have granted us tools since then…
Resting his crossbow’s stirrup on a fork in the branch, he wrapped his legs around the thick bough and flattened himself against its bark. Perfect! The dead goat lay squarely in his sights from this vantage point. If the Beast of Saltern returned craving leftover chevon, he’d have a clear shot at the unsuspecting man-eater. And with such a heavy draw weight, one shot from this crossbow was enough. More than enough.
For what felt like an eternity, he sat in silence. Stars wheeled across the partially clouded sky, and anxiety began nibbling at his gut. Did he catch my scent? Ripening aromas from the carcass below should have masked him, but even the slightest whiff of potential danger might drive his prey away from its favorite haunt.
Before worry could swallow him up, Owen heard the sweetest sound anyone hunting man-eaters could ask for: the snorting alarm of a deer. But it sounded…off. Halting. Almost like it didn’t know whether to fear whatever had caught its attention.
Something rustled in the underbrush about a hundred paces to his left, and a silhouette slunk onto the beach. What in damnation…? The shadow moved with the graceful gait of a panther yet stood taller than most bears and carried even more muscle around its shoulders. A short tail swayed as the creature padded over for a second helping of goat. Some sort of injury? After all, its thick mane suggested a male lion.
Then the clouds parted.
Moonlight bathed everything in silver, the spiny quills around its neck glinted like a bristling wall of pikes, and he knew this fiend defied nature simply by setting foot on Talmenor. Gods have mercy!
The Beast of Saltern was a nekru.
Memories crashed down on him like an avalanche. Arrows whistling out of the dark. Wicked blades flashing in the twilight. Shrieking nekru and akor’mar war cries. Levy spearmen crumpling before the onslaught, saber-like nekru fangs sinking into Baron Lothridge’s throat, claws ripping through flesh. Screams. Gods, so many screaming refugees silenced by nekru!
By the time they receded, his entire body trembled. Pull yourself together, Gibbs. Sweeter memories bubbled up. How he’d fought his way clear and guided the surviving refugees to safety in Tarith. How the Sheyn Little Folk called him a hero. How Tarith had knighted him for his deeds at the otherwise disastrous Battle of Glassock. The akor’mari are gone. Scattered. The war is over. So why did he feel like it wasn’t?
Bones crunched, drawing his attention back to the creature feasting less than sixty paces from his perch. Why in damnation are you here? Considered sacred by the akor’mari, nekru hailed from an entirely different Sphere of existence and only walked Talmenor thanks to the knife-eared magi who summoned them. Maybe things were different in the depths of the Reaches, but they never prowled the surface alone.
Are all these deaths part of some plot to rekindle the war?
Brushing the question aside, Owen shouldered his crossbow. For Glassock and Saltern! More memories welled up without any warning. He tensed…and so did his fingers on the trigger.
One smooth squeeze of the trigger would’ve punched wood and steel straight through the man-eater’s heart. Instead, the flinch yanked his shot so high it barely clipped gray fur. Sand puffed as his bolt drilled into the beach, and a feline head snapped up. For a moment, yellow eyes glared straight at the tall oak where he perched. Then the Beast of Saltern sprinted back into the underbrush, half a dead goat still dangling from its jaws.
Owen ran calloused fingers through his hair and muttered a string of curses. Should’ve brought the bear spear! If he hadn’t left the damn thing with his hosts in Saltern, chasing the beast through briars and brambles would’ve made sense. But armed only with a heavy crossbow at such short range? Suicide. Even clambering down from his perch wasn’t safe until sunrise. Not with a nekru on the prowl.
Blowing a furious sigh through clenched teeth, he slumped against the bough. Best chance anyone has ever had of bagging the Beast and what do I do? Cock everything up like a cub on his first hunt! Guilt and shame knotted his guts. How many more lives would this man-eater claim thanks to the war still raging in his head?