42 – Maneater
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Small gaps in the corn led into two other clearings such as this, and after briefly considering walking straight into the corn, she chose to follow the one to the right. Her gut told her it would be unwise to step into the thick of the maize.

A smaller clearing, barely five meters across, bone fragments strewn about on the ground. In the center there sat a large flat-topped rock, upon which there sat a large bone, picked free of flesh. Zelsys didn’t have much knowledge of human anatomy, but even she could tell this was a femur. Some whole bones could be seen strewn about on the ground The maize stalks around it were worn down to the dirt, as if someone - or something - had spent much time sitting in the same spot. For no reason in particular, Zel took hold of her gun’s trigger lever and reached for her cleaver’s handle.

There was no gut feeling, her instincts weren’t screeching, but still, she wanted to be cautious. Clearly, this was where the beast ate, but why would it have a specific clearing for eating? It was just a mindless beast, after all.

Back to the larger clearing and through the other opening in the maize. Another circular clearing, smaller than the first but larger than the second, perhaps ten meters across. There was much blood splattered across the ground, dry to the point of near-blackness. No corpses. Either the beast was less lethal than the barkeep suggested, or it left nothing more than bone fragments behind.

Perhaps it ate those too, just more slowly. Zel’s gaze darted from one end of this clearing to the other. Something was off - the crickets were silent. Then, the Fog rolled in - a reddish-silver haze that sat low to the ground, the metallic stench of blood filling her nostrils. By the flow of the Fog, the source would have to be… Directly behind her.

There came a barely-audible rustling of corn, followed by equally silent footfalls, and somehow, she still didn’t get that gut feeling, as if she wasn’t in any immediate danger. Soon, she heard the beast’s heavy breathing, its teeth clicking and drool dripping as it murmured to itself. Maybe it hadn’t noticed her yet. Maybe, she could get the jump on it by pretending she had fallen for its ambush.

It murmured and murmured, approaching with slow, deliberate steps, perfectly even, perfectly silent even on a floor of sun-dried maize. Zel took a breath, filling her lungs as quietly as she could in an attempt to not arouse any suspicion. Fortunately, the Fog sat low enough to the ground that her inhalation didn’t visibly disturb it. She felt the invigoration that always came with a breath of Fog spread through her body, her senses amplified to the point where she could make out what the beast was muttering. It wasn’t just the meaningless chattering of teeth, but rather a barely-audible monologue.

“So hungry, so cold… Need to eat… Eat humans... Quincy said he would send dinner…” it rambled to itself in a comforting tone. It spoke as if it were trying to convince itself into following advice that its animalistic urges pushed against, audibly trying to hold onto scraps of humanity with splintered fingers.

The beast’s inhumanly hot breath washed over her like a curtain, the smell of blood so intense it nauseated. Even still, she felt no fight or flight instinct. 

“Oh, there you are,” it said warmly. “My apologies, my eyes aren’t quite what they used to be. Eating my eyelids was a regrettable decision, I must admit. Did… Did Quincy send you? The barkeep with delicious fingers?”

Its words bubbled from its throat in a bizarre manner, its tongue clearly not suited to such refined speech, and yet there it was, speaking as cordially as any well-educated citizen. Unable to bear it any longer, she exhaled and whipped around, taking a step backwards as she raised her gun to the beast in preparation.

It was… A person? Or, it had been a person, at some point in the distant past. The creature’s distended, skeletal form loomed in place, nearly stone-still. It had snow-white skin covered in patchy, deer-like fur, huge patches missing on its unnaturally long arms and legs, clearly chewed off. Its hands had no skin whatsoever, its fingertips stripped down to the bone and sharpened into talons. 

What struck her most about the pitiful creature, however, was its head. A pair of antlers crowned it, and it had matted, blood-encrusted brown hair hanging between them. It had no lips, likely having chewed them off, and its bright green eyes stared unblinking from their sockets, the whites bloodshot and yellow. Even its ears were just bloody holes.

“Ah… Hello? Did Quincy send you?” repeated the beast, this time with genuine concern, cocking its head.

“Yes. Quincy sent me to end you,” she admitted, making no effort to hide either the Fog that poured from her mouth with each word, or the caution in her voice. The beast laughed a sad, sonorous rumble. 

“No, no no no,” its head swayed from side to side. “You were to be my meal, so that this curse of mine doesn’t overtake me. But alas...”

It sniffed in her direction, then coughed and spat a bloody loogie in disgust. 

“You are not edible.”

“Oh?” Zel raised an eyebrow. “How come? Are you not a man-eating beast?”

The beast gave a slow, cautious nod, “Unfortunately so. The scent of man is intoxicating to my appetite, it brings out this cursed form’s instincts and strips control from me, sooner or later. I thought you had taken actions to hide your scent, but now...”

It took a small step towards her, leaning in for another whiff. It retched, then audibly swallowed something. 

“I realize that your scent is not that of man,” it said, disappointment audible in its voice. “You reek of primordial mercury and alkahest, of alembics and elixirs. Human or not, partaking of your flesh would spell my doom.”

Zelsys could no longer resist the impulse that tried to twist her face into an irreverent grin.

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