Great Hunt is pretty damn long (5000 words plus) so I doubt many people will have the stamina to slog through it, but I wrote it anyway. The whole thing is one big waste of time, but then what story isn’t? Just a bit of nonsense with big houses, big men, big beasts and mucking around. Oh, and eating hearts. So there’s that.
And another story of mine that ends with ‘And that was that’, because I obviously have a soft-spot for that.
Jacob could not believe his luck.
Not only had the single most popular, attractive and generally most unearthly girl in the entire school sought him out personally to invite him round for something she had been very vague about, but he was also being driven there in opulent style as well. He’d told her he’d be fine taking the bus, but Isabella (for the girl in question was and is called such) had reacted to the word as though it burnt her and not been willing to hear him speak further. Given the very nice car she’d sent to pick him up, he had to admit things had probably worked out alright.
And her attractiveness wasn’t just a matter of his personal opinion either, though it did factor heavily into his disbelief at the situation. She consistently topped the polls that the school ran (something about which Jacob felt he probably wasn’t the only one slightly uncomfortable with) and her face had launched at least half a dozen ships to date. What had become of them following that point was less clear, but irrelevant.
Also, it was known that some university or other had once come down to use her in a study it was running about the effect of symmetry on attractiveness and she’d apparently been very useful in this regard, leading some sort of ‘memetic weapon of terrible power’ that had already been put to use in some ‘great purpose’. Or that was what Jacob heard, at least. He wasn’t an expert in how studies were run and it did seem a little far-fetched, but he did have to admit that her face was exceedingly symmetrical. He’d read this was a good thing.
From his personal experience he had seen at least three boys and one girl get into traffic accidents because they were gawping in Isabella’s direction, which was fairly impressive. And those were just the ones he’d seen himself. They had since largely recovered, and the school now required them to wear blinders, which seemed rather like locking the stable once the horses had bolted but what did Jacob know?
A primary reason for Jacob not believing his luck was also the fact that he had – up until receiving the verbal invitation from her earlier that very day – never actually said a single word to Isabella. In fact, he couldn’t really remember her ever having looked at him or acknowledging his existence in any way, shape or form. Once he’d tripped over on the tarmac outside the school and she’d stepped over him. That was about as close as it had got. And now he was being invited to her house! He didn’t understand girls. This sort of thing was probably perfectly normal.
Still, he wasn’t going to question his good fortune. Whatever her reasons in inviting him over it would at least be an adventure, and an adventure in the proximity of an extremely attractive girl, which was apparently a good thing. His peers certainly thought so. Jacob, being the unrepentant fantasist that he was, allowed his mind to wander. Being chronically unimaginative it did not wander much further than ‘I wonder what Isabella’s house is like’ and ‘She is very pretty, but that is about all I know’. He frowned at this, and stared at his hands instead.
His hands proved so interesting that he failed to notice that they had arrived. A cough from the driver snapped him out of it and he looked up at the enormous frontage of the house. Had he been an expert he would have been appalled at the inelegant and unnecessary mashing of styles involved in creating the monstrosity. But he was not, so he was just impressed by its scale and the wealth that must have been involved.
Then he noticed the other boys. Loitering around on the gravel drive outside the house were a good handful of them – maybe ten or so. Some he recognised from school, some he did not but still knew they also attended. He briefly toyed with the idea that Isabella perhaps had ten identical sisters all of whom had poor planning skills and didn’t consult when they were inviting people over, but he doubted this. Maybe this was perfectly normal, too.
Leaving the car (which then left him) he dolefully joined the crowd, doing his best to avoid the one or two known-to-be-dickheads in the group. No-one there seemed to have any particular clue as to why they might all have been invited at once, and some were indeed rather unhappy about it. Not so unhappy they had any intention of leaving, of course.
After much muttering and feeble attempts at small talk the stupendously large doors at the front of the property swung open without prompting. Following this rather grand gesture they did nothing further, and no-one came out to explain to the boys what to do next. They just stood there gawping, waiting on someone else to be the first to make a move. Grunting, Jacob walked in through the door, feeling it best to bite the bullet. He was promptly overtaken by a taller boy he knew by reputation he knocked him to the side in his haste to beat Jacob inside. Naturally.
Inside the house was just as much of an architectural and stylistic nightmare as it was on the outside, only more colourful and somehow even less tasteful. The floors radiated expense and sucked in warmth as the boys walked in a loose pack into a round section sitting beneath a rotunda, flanked by sweeping staircases and overlooked by an upper landing. On this landing Isabella appeared, picking the most dramatic moment to do so and immediately catching the attention of all present. They didn’t even notice the doors closing.
Isabella’s outfit the day was some mind-bending arrangement of straps, ribbons and lace that was difficult to truly comprehend. It was the sort of thing designed by people who were deeply resentful that the clothes they made had to be worn by human beings and something that likely cost a significant chunk of the GDP. She wore it well was the silent group consensus.
Jacob had always felt that she looked very fetching in her uniform at school, but for his money her current choice was so impractical it made him feel a bit uncomfortable just looking at her. Not that he knew much about fashion, he just felt sorry for her not having any pockets and the looming danger of falling out of the thing. Still, her choice. And it went without saying that there was a primal, rat-bastard part of his brain that very much appreciated the view, but that part he was a little ashamed of. The others did not have as much shame about their rat parts.
“Thank you all for coming,” she said in a voice that made the hairs stand up on the back of Jacob’s neck and also caused a ripple to run through the assembled crowd. Her voice always did that. Jacob imagined that it made conversations with her uncomfortable.
Further appreciation of the dulcet tones of Isabella and their anomalous effect on neck hair was cut short by the appearence behind her of the single most enormous man jacob or indeed any of the lads) had ever seen. Where he had been hiding was anyone’s guess – it was amazing the house didn’t tilt when he moved.
The man was the human equivalent of a brick wall. Almost twice the height of Isabella and easily three or four (or even five) times as wide. The sense of mass and density he projected was almost tangible. He was so large he could probably stand-in if the one the actual walls of the house needed to take a break for any reason. It was difficult trying to work out just how a human being could end up such a size and shape, but evidently they had. For some reason Jacob felt a sudden surge of pained sympathy for Isabella’s mother, but couldn’t put his finger on why.
“My father, Lord Bull,” She said. Lord Bull held up a magnanimous hand the size of a spade.
“Please, no formality! You may all call me ‘Sir’,” he said, his other hand coming to rest on Isabella’s shoulder and very nearly squashing her flat.
“It’s so gratifying to see so many fine, brave lads willing to make the effort and show up to my humble house and grounds on this fine day! And they say the youth of today are all worthless layabouts – you all put the lie to that!” He said. This did not fill anyone present with enthusiasm, but he kept smiling anyway.
“Isabella darling, you can go off now and bathe in a pool of crystal-clear spring water or whatever it is girls your age are expected to do. Being a father, I can of course have no idea what it is you do and what you enjoy,” he said. Isabella nodded and departed without a word. There were stifled groans from the lads but they went unheeded by Lord Bull who turned back to them and clapped his hands together, the force lifting dust off the pelmets in the next room.
“Right,” he said before somersaulting down to their level, performing gravity-defying twirls and spins on his way down before hitting the ground with force and weight enough to crack the marble. A group of men in overalls immediately burst from a side room to fix the damage as Lord Bull herded the boys back outside with his sheer bulk. The doors opened once more and the boys were soon all in the garden at the rear of the house, somehow. Jacob wasn’t sure how that had worked, given their relative points of entry.
Outside there was grass and on this grass was stood a knot of surly men in ghillie suits. Stood next to them was guns. The guns also looked surly, or at least as firearm could be expected to look.
“How many of you boys have been hunting?” Lord Bull asked. No-one raised their hand.
“Excellent! That’s what I like to see! Experience,” he said. Making a sweeping, generic gesture in the direction of the ghillie-clad manservants Lord Bull somehow commanded them to pick up armfuls of weaponry and approach the boys, who were by this point too bewildered to do much else but stand there.
A sour-faced manservant thrust a gun into Jacob’s hands before his brain had even fully worked out what it was he was being handed. Guns were simply something so far out of his normal routine of experience his brain was frantically trying to catch up with the situation. When it did, he flinched and went a bit pale. It weighed a lot more than he had expected one to, and he looked at it as though it wanted to burn his house down and urinate on the ashes. Guns didn’t look that friendly close up, he thought, though maybe this one just didn’t like him.
“You appear uncomfortable, Jacob!” Lord Bull said, popping up from behind and making him jump nearly a foot in the air. For a man the size of a shed he could certainly be covert. Jacob had to swallow his heart back down out of his throat before replying.
“I’ve never touched a gun before,” he said. Lord Bull guffawed, a sound that Jacob could feel in his diaphragm.
“Nothing to fear from guns, my boy! Just remember the simple rules: always respect the weapon’s warrior spirit, keep it well fed and never deny it glory!”
Jacob had a sneaking suspicion these were not actual rules most people followed. Especially as he was dimly aware the actual rules were something along the lines of always treating a firearm as loaded, never pointing it at anything you wouldn’t be okay shooting and keeping one’s finger off the trigger at all times except when firing. Maybe Lord Bull never heard those lessons. The gun did feel like it would be easily offended.
“I’ll bear that in mind,” Jacob said, receiving a hearty slap on the back and being sent face-first to the ground.
By the time he’d picked himself up all the boys had been appropriately armed and instructed and were already tramping off across the exquisitely manicured lawns towards the forest beyond. Jacob jogged to catch up, cradling the gun like an angry baby. The trees loomed dark and grim, and it wasn’t until they were stood right on the threshold that Jacob noticed how odd it was for trees to have no leaves in the height of summer. Probably bad sign. Or maybe he’d missed something.
“The forest exists in a localised patch of unceasing winter. Cursed woodland was all the rage last year and I am nothing if not a slave to the latest fashions!” Lord Bull said helpfully, again behind Jacob. Well that answered that.
Lord Bull – flanked by his manservants – stood before the woods and rose up to his full height, which was ridiculous. Holding out a hand he was given what was clearly his own personal weapon and raised it then above his head, making it about level with some of the mid-tier branches on the smaller trees.
“Boys, today we hunt!” He said, and with little preamble turned and entered the woods. The boys could do very little else. Or at least that was how they felt. Exchanging worried, confused glances they considered maybe just running away. This was not an attractive option, however. The atmosphere compelled them to follow, and even if they didn’t they were still stuck out in the middle of nowhere surrounded by men in big shaggy suits with firearms. Doleful, the boys went into the woods.
Almost the minute they were beyond the treeline the temperature plummeted and everything got very quiet indeed. Their breath frosted up in front of them in billowing great clouds and they shivered, clutching their guns tight in numb fingers. Lord Bull strode forward unconcerned, laughing at nature and kicking at saplings. Jacob regretted not having brought something warmer, though he honestly could not have seen a situation like this coming. Silence smothered them as they picked their way through the trees, the more nervous boys jumping at every snapping twig and rustling breeze.
Jacob found himself drifting closer to Lord Bull as the group proceeded, and felt sufficiently cold enough that he didn’t care about popping a question:
“What are we hunting, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Beasts, my boy! Terrible beasts, wild and free. They’re a blight on my holdings and a danger to those under my protection and so they must be hunted down!”
That cleared that up, at least in Lord Bull’s opinion as he then moved off – he had spotted the scrawny blonde llad flagging slightly and knew that a rousing tale or two would be just the thing to perk him up. Jacob had several follow-up questions (such as ‘just how terrible are we talking about here?’ for one) but felt they could probably wait.
They soon moved far enough in that the woods extended off in every direction as far as the eye could see, at which point Jacob hoped someone had at least brought a compass or else things could end up not going well at all. There had still been no sign of any beasts, terrible or otherwise. Jacob had been trying to wrack his brain as to whether Lord Bull was simply using flowery language to describe something as mundane as explicable as, say, a wild boar or else was describing something legitimately unusual. Jacob had no idea.
With a bowel-loosening snarl something enormous and hairy burst from a pile of frozen twigs and dead leaves. Time slowed to a leisurely pace so all the boys could catch a slow-motion sight of the thing poised in the air before it fell upon its prey The manservant it leapt onto barely had time to scream before they had disappeared up to the waist in the thing’s toothy maw, whatever sound he may have made after that inaudible as the man was swallowed whole.
“Beast!” Lord Bull cried, the force in his voice almost enough to lift leaves off the ground. He also pointed at the monster with the hand not holding the stock of his gun, in case anyone was confused as to where or what the beast was. It was lucky he was there, really.
Perhaps half the lads managed to react in any useful fashion. Jacob technically was among them, though by the time he had gotten over the jolt of shock and terror and actually got the gun around to point towards the beast – its head thrown back as the manservant’s feet finally disappeared from view – he failed to pull the trigger as he was too dumbstruck to notice he was trying to fire by squeezing the guard instead. Thankfully for him, everyone was too deafened by gunblasts to notice.
As poorly-aimed as most of the shots had been – and they had been astonishingly poorly aimed – enough struck true to make the beast rear back and bellow in pain and fury. Taking a moment to cast a hateful gaze across all of them (Jacob in particularly swore it locked eyes with him personally) it dug its claws into the earth and then launched off between the trees.
“After it!” Lord Bull shouted, backhanding a manservant across the face in his eagerness and then setting off at a sprint. Jacob followed, and in dribs-and-drabs so did the rest of the lads.
Frozen air burned in their lungs as they ran to keep up with the fleeing beast. Getting a clear shot was impossible, the beast moved too fast and there always seemed to be a tree in the way. If Lord Bull was getting tired he wasn’t telling anyone, still laughing loudly as he vaulted over fallen trunks and crunched through icy puddles.
“Circle around lads, circle around! Let’s get it where we want it!” He shouted, pointing off to the side. With a surprising demonstration of teamwork the boys actually managed to comply with minimal fuss, the handful closest to the side Lord Bull had indicated breaking off at speed. The beast continued, now moving in not quite the same direction it had been before.
Little by little – with carefully considered commands from Lord Bull – the beast was gradually stripped of places to hides and places to run. The moment a clear shot presented itself Lord Bull raised his gun and put a round through one of the beast’s hind legs, drawing out an ear-piercing whine of pain and rage and reducing it to a limp. Soon, the distance between the hunters and the hunted dwindled further.
“Fire boys, fire! We’ve nearly got him by Jove!” Lord Bull said by way of encouragement. The response was not immediate, but every so often one or other of the boys would level their gun (trying to aim this time) and actually take a potshot or two. Some of them were even hitting. The beast was bleeding heavily from numerous wounds across its flank, its pace was slowing further still and the sound of its wheezing breaths echoed off the trees back at them.
A scrawny boy tripped and his gun discharged, a manservant off to the side collapsing with a yelp. The boy scrambled over to apologise (and help, presumably) only to have Lord Bull grab him by the scruff of the neck and drive him forward.
“Don’t dally! He’ll be fine. Wouldn’t want to miss the final blow!” He roared, sending the boy careening off through the trees as the manservant writhed on the forest floor.
Not long after that the beast finally collapsed, its faltering legs giving way. Even grounded it still tried to struggle onwards, making the most horrendous noises as it failed to escape. The boys, the remaining manservants and Lord Bull all surrounded it. Lord Bull looked about as happy as it was possible for a huge slab of a man to look.
“Run to ground, beast – run to ground!” He exclaimed with evident joy, lining up and putting another shot through the beast’s flanks, leaving it writhing and bleeding. Jacob found the fearful look in the thing’s eyes deeply unsettling, and looked away. He couldn’t stop himself from hearing it, however.
“Fine work lads fine work, we showed this beast, eh?”
Crouching down by the side of the thing, Lord Bull produced an egregiously large and aggressive looking knife from a sheath on his ankle and stuck it into its ribs with a ‘hah!’. It gave a twitch and a spasm, letting out a long, low whine as it kicked weakly, unable to stop Lord Bull from carving it open. Its eye frantically rolled around, looking into each of the boy’s faces in turn. It found nothing in any of them, and with a rattle it squirmed its last.
Lord Bull thrust a hand into the thing’s belly and started digging around, face furrowed in concentration. The boys watched in horrified fascination as he did so, Jacob wondering how often one would have to practise such a thing to be able to find a particular organ just by touch alone. Not a life skill that had much application, he would have thought. But Jacob had been wrong before.
With a slurping hand Lord Bull removed his arm, a slippery and crimson lump clutched in his fist. The heart even gave a final, dramatic beat as it was held aloft, squirting onto one of the boy’s faces and making them go a bit green (and red, obviously). Lord Bull was still beaming fit to burst as he brought the freshly-removed heart down to a more reasonable level for everyone else.
“Come lads, gather round! Let us share in the strength of the beast before it’s blood cools! In! In! All in! Take a bite! Feel the power!” Lord Bull said, shoving the heart under the nose of the nearest lad who, under intense pressure from every person immediately looking at them, took a bite. It wasn’t an experience they appeared to enjoy. The heart was then passed along through the group. Except for Jacob, who was stood off to one side, not joining in.
You too Jacob, you were a true warrior today!” Lord Bull said, gesturing for Jacob to join the huddle. Jacob made his best ‘I must politely decline’ gesture.
“I’m good, thanks,” he said, resolutely not moving an inch even as further bites were taken from the heart.
“You’re missing all the best bits of the still-warm heart!” Lord Bull said. Jacob did not feel this was a massive loss.
“I can live with that.”
“Are you quite sure?” Lord Bull asked as the heart – much reduced – made its final pass. The boys looked bilious, which lent strength to Jacob’s position.
“Very,” he said. And that was that. Further discussion was prevented by the first boy to have partaken of the heart suddenly doubling over and clutching at this gut with a squeal. As his noises grew more painful and the other boys moved further away from him, the remaining manservants circled in tighter. Then the next boy contorted, and then the next. At that point they all knew what was coming, but the manservants prevented them from leaving and there was no way to stop it.
Little by little the sounds of pain and pleading grew less and less human in tone, the words melting away to incoherent snarling and growling as throats lengthened and thickened, vocal cords tearing. Flesh buckled and split as muscles swelled, talons bursting from fingers and fur sprouting from inopportune places. Clothes were quickly left as shredded remnants on the floor as the boys’ bodies grew far, far larger than what had been a human had any right to be. The eyes did not change. The eyes were still human.
“Away! Away beasts!” Lord Bull yelled, shoving the manservants into action and they in turn setting about the most-transformed beasts with prods and goads, sending them howling off into the trees. The more confused and enraged tried to fight back but were clumsy and groggy, easily fended off and knocked senseless to the ground before being butchered in place. It all happened so fast, Jacob could only watch. Almost before he could comprehend it, it was over.
“Well, that was bracing,” Lord Bull said, rising again to his feet and wiping his hands clean on a rag from the floor. Clapping them together he turned to Jacob, beaming.
“Why did you refuse?” He asked.
“I’ve never really liked heart,” Jacob said. This wasn’t technically true given as he’d never actually tried heart, but from what he did and did not like he made a (reasonable) assumption that it wouldn’t really be his thing. The transformation into an inhuman monster was a side-effect he had been unaware of, but certainly didn’t add to the appeal.
“Ah, a man after my own – if you’ll pardon the joke – heart! I can’t say I’ve ever much enjoyed it myself. So much in common, you and I! Reminds me of my youth,” Lord Bull said. A piteous howling sound echoed back at them from somewhere off in the forest and conversation halted briefly.
“Do you often do this?” Jacob asked once the howl had died away.
“Only when we start running low on beasts. Everyone needs a hobby,” Lord Bull said. He had started walking back and, lacking better options and seeing as how it looked as if he knew where he was going, Jacob followed.
“I see,” Jacob said. He wondered if he should feel something more about what he had just seen, but it was just so difficult these days. He blamed technology, despite not really owning any other than his antique collection of cutting-edge mobile telegraph machines. Lord Bull was right when he said everyone needed a hobby, it seemed.
They made swift progress back through the cursed woods and into the sunnier, warmer grounds. The sudden and stark line between the winter-cold grey skies above the woods and the sunny blue skies beyond was an odd effect, but a pleasant one all in all. Jacob appreciated the change in temperate.
“So now what?” Jacob asked as they strolled back across the lawns. Lord Bull stopped, clearly not having expected this question. He looked puzzled for perhaps the first time in months.
“You know what, I don’t know. This is the first time this has happened. Hmm, I suppose I should do something magnanimous, shouldn’t I?”
“I wouldn’t know, this is my first time, too,” Jacob said.
By this time they had reached the house, and Isabella came out to meet her father. She had ditched the intricate and expensive dress for pajamas, which looked far more comfortable. They also had tiny little cartoon zebras on them, which was pretty great. She was holding a bowl of soup and looked genuinely surprised to see that her father had company that wasn’t the manservants. That there were fewer manservants coming back then had left originally was not unusual.
“Did you enjoy your bath in crystal-clear spring water?” Jacob asked her. She did look rather more radiant, but that could have just been his imagination.
“I actually bathe in tears,” Isabella said flatly, blowing on the soup. Jacob frowned. How embarrassing for him.
“Oh that’s much better,” he said. Lord Bull took gentle hold of his daughter and placed her onto his shoulder, her arm coming out to balance on his head. This did not affect his posture in any noticeable way.
“Tears of joy are good for the skin, I’m told,” he said, patting her leg. Isabella continued peering down at Jacob with bemusement, giving her soup an experimental sip and deciding it was still too hot.
“How has he come back?” She asked. Isabella had seen this thing happen three times before – being the ‘bait’, as it were, she could not had avoided it – and no-one had ever come back before. Her feelings on the matter were that the whole thing was a bit silly, and she personally found her part in it somewhat degrading. That ludicrous dress existed specifically so she could wear it and appear above whoever she managed to convince to come over, and it was a pain to get on.
Ideally, she would just get to stay at home and curate her collection of antique, cutting-edge mobile telegraph machines. But her father insisted they needed to do more things together, and that was life. If only she could meet a like-minded individual with a similar hobby, but what were the odds of that happening?
“Jacob here refused to partake in the heart of the beast! A first, I believe.”
“Why?” Isabella asked, cocking her head.
“I don’t like heart.”
“He doesn’t like heart.”
Jacob and Lord Bull managed to say this in almost perfect synchronicity, which gave them both chills. The hairs on the back of Lord Bull’s neck stood up so hard and so fast they sprayed out in a blinding shower, much as a tarantula might launch (though he did not do it on purpose).
“Oh. Now what happens?” Isabella asked. Full of questions she was, it seemed. She rarely got an opportunity to present her opinions or concerns (given that talking too much or revealing any in-depth thought processes tended to tarnish her ‘ethereal and unapproachable’ mystique, which she was apparently not allowed to do) and now seemed as good a time as any to hold forth, given the unusual circumstances.
“We’re not sure. What would you like to do, Jacob?” Lord Bull asked.
“Would asking for a lift home be too much?” He asked. He had no other way of getting home otherwise, and was mentally gearing himself up for a walk. It would probably take a while, but needs must. Or needs might must, depending on Lord Bull’s answer, of course.
“A lift home? My boy! I would run you home myself, cradling you in my arms! But I have people with vehicles to do that for me – I shall send for one of them, post-haste.”
Lord Bull snapped his fingers and a man in a four-by-four came crashing through the wall, pulling up to a sharp halt mere feet from Jacob via means of a sick handbrake turn, brah.This of course showered Jacob with shattered brick-dust and flecks of masonry, but the handbrake turn had been sick enough that he’d let this slide. The driver, one hand on the wheel, the other arm resting out of the open window, popped his collar and adjusted his sunglasses.
“Brah,” he said, by way of introduction. Jacob merely nodded before turning back to Lord Bull and his shoulder-mounted daughter. He gave them a nod as well.
“It’s been an experience,” he said, charitably. He then clambered into the rear of the idling vehicle, buckling himself up as safety always came first.
“Home, please,” he told the driver. He’d understand.
“Brah, brew. Bro.” The driver said, by way of understanding. He then pulled a few sweet donuts on the polished, irreplaceable marbles before screeching out off across the lawns and away. Lord Bull and Isabella remained behind in the resulting dust cloud, squinting. But, like, squinting dramatically and with poise.
“That was unusual,” Lord Bull said, eventually. Isabella – whose soup had finally cooled down, mostly thanks to the dust – was too busy sipping to immediately reply.
“It was. A tiny bit,” she said eventually.
“I shall send the lesser-grade assassins after him. He may prove useful in the future,” Lord Bull said, scratching his chin.
“You could always not send assassins.”
“Oh, I’d like nothing better darling! But you know how it is. Unspoken rules.”
They were unspoken because he was making them up on the spot. But this was implied and – appropriately – also didn’t need to be spoken for it to be understood. Isabella was aware of her father’s idiosyncrasies. The lesser assassins had been out of work for a while now anyway, it would probably be good for them,
“If you say so. Can I come down now?” She asked, the thin air starting to get to her.
“Yes, of course – sorry.”
And that was that.