a/n: written for a 30 day OTP challenge on tumblr which I never actually finished. This is my favourite of the fics I wrote!

.:.

Ivan is a hunter by trade though his title is officially mercenary. He is handy with a bow and arrow but he tends to prefer the speed of his crossbow. He can use rifles, but prefers not to - these are loud, and he appreciates instead the stealth of a predator. He tends to think of himself as a panther or perhaps a snow leopard because like them, he too hunts big game. For close combat he is equally destructive with his boot knife and his fists but he tends not to use these skills. If he has gotten close enough to require a blade then he has gotten too close and that's messy.

His job is satisfying. It is fulfilling and it provides him with more than enough to buy himself a small plot of land and a hut where his mother can live in relative peace. Once in awhile he returns home to see her but he is busy and she knows this, although her sad smile makes him wonder how much exactly she knows.

Because his job is also a way to escape himself. He feels nothing for women, he never has, and the second he realised he would never give his mother what she wanted - a family beyond he and his mother and his late father (all three of whom had no siblings), perhaps grandchildren to smother with affection - he began training for this instead. After becoming one of the most fearless, ruthless soldiers the Red Army had ever seen, he left it and became one of its most efficient mercenaries. But he has a goal in mind all the time - not fame, and not fortune (not exactly). To repay his mother for the gift of life she bestowed upon him.

He knows she would rather he have repaid her as a family man. But he is not a family man. He is not even a dog person.

So as a matter of principle, Ivan insists upon half the money up front and half the money later. And though the townspeople of Odaawa are poor, he doesn't budge - it's that or nothing! Skills like his don't get honed overnight and therefore they cannot come cheaply.

For that price, you'd better catch it, they mutter, but they scrimp and save - evidently their problem is serious indeed - and fork over a bag of gold in the end.

.:.

Hunting and poaching is not allowed in the King's forests, of course, and outside the village limits and permitted hunting and fishing boundaries, any single arrow shot, any trigger pulled, is punishable. The punishment is not severe, however; it is three days in the stocks and if you're lucky, and most people are at least a little, then someone will come by and feed you, though the shame of being in the stocks is second only to the shame of not being permitted time out of it to relieve oneself.

Three days of standing around in one's own filth, dirty and smelly, with a sign saying what you have done, when other monarchs have poachers hanged ... no, the stocks are not a very strict punishment.

Which is why when the hunters and poachers of the village - someone's idiot brother, someone's drunken cousin, someone's younger friend who was dared by older teenagers to prove himself - go missing for weeks and months, it is odd. Someone starts looking in the forest, past the village limits. Not to fire weapons or anything, just to look - there's no harm in looking, surely?

They find nothing but a pile of bones in the ravine, but they count the skulls and there are enough to account for all the people who were missing. Probably whoever put these things here will return, and so they station someone nearby, in a tree, for when the culprit returns to stash more remains it cannot eat.

It takes three people stationed while the pile of bones grows before one of them finally makes it back and this one is shaken, gibbering and out of his mind with fear. He wets himself and has to be restrained when they ask him about what it was.

Slowly, they drag the story out of him: a giant, ten feet tall, perhaps twenty. An emaciated creature, its arms thin as the bones and a dark, tanned, leathery hide stretched over them. Its hair messy and sticking straight up in weird ways, and its hot breath the most foul thing one could imagine - smelled like decay, like rotting meat, only hundreds of times stronger and worse. Its teeth were sharp and bright white and in the cover of the moonlight that's all that one can see, a horrible perverse leer. It was silent through the forests and the man had barely gotten away because this giant creature had long, strong legs even though its limbs were so scarily thin he didn't know where it was hiding its muscle.

It had deep-set eyes, sunken into its grayish dark skin, and the man that had seen them and had their gaze locked on to him like a sniper's scope didn't stop having nightmares about them for months.

This is Ivan's prey.

.:.

Ivan isn't familiar with this particular forest but it's a forest and at this latitude they are all mostly very similar. It takes him very little time to get his bearings. He makes it about three kilometres in when he finds the shallow stream and, after a careful inspection of the water, he stops briefly to refill the two flasks he keeps in the pockets on either side of his belt.

He hasn't heard a thing yet but it is still light out; it is perhaps the whim of this beast to hunt at night. That wouldn't be uncommon. Still, he holds his crossbow with a single arrow laced and ready to fly in his left hand and every snap of a twig behind him has him touching the trigger as he whirls around. His long coat shifts against his pants but there is no other sound to give him away.

Nothing there.

Better to be safe than sorry, he thinks, adjusting his shirt back into place as he straightens. Ivan will kill this creature, of that he has little doubt, but pride goeth before a fall and he does not want them to send his crossbow home to his mother instead of the rest of the bag of gold he promised her because he was hotheaded.

His nerves are on-edge for the majority of the silent hike into the woods and don't ease when he reaches the bone pile. It's fascinating, in a sick way. All the bones are picked clean - there's nothing left for the vultures.

Ivan picks up a femur and studies it in the white daylight of overcast sky. Scratches all along it; judging from their width, the beast has sharp but thin teeth. Presumably they must also be strong. Though the marks he sees look more like gnawing than chomping, he suspects there must be strength in the beast's jawbone. Some of the bones are broken, the marrow sucked clean out.

Next, he squats down to pull out a fibula from the bottom of the pile. Taking a look at the first bones and comparing them with the last might give him a sense for the creature's strategy. It seems, upon examination, that the marks on the first bones are shallower, rounder, softer. Some of that might have been erosion, though it hasn't rained very much here and the bone pile is not in a place of running water. Rather it seems that these bones weren't gnawed on as strongly. There would have been meat left, he thinks - perhaps it was left for the flies.

The fact that the creature didn't return to the meat on the bottom of the pile, kept killing and eating... the fact that the later bones show so much more frenzy ...

Ivan replaces the bones, says a simple prayer for the victims in his mind and leaves the pile in rest.

He has reached the thick of the woods where the paths made by the villagers finally stop when he comes across the tiny conical tent. It appears to have been made of tanned hides draped over sticks, which are planted in the ground and propped up upon each other. It is about twenty feet tall, meaning that its base is about ten to fifteen feet in diameter. There is no coverage at the apex, where the branches meet and cross and are tied together with what looks like twine, and here Ivan spots smoke.

Someone is inside and there is a fire going. Instantly he feels the chills down his spine.

He takes a cautious look all around him - there is nothing - and then raises the crossbow with steady hands. There is only one sound - the click it makes as he removes the safety on the weapon. Then he advances upon the tent slowly, step by step.

At thirty paces' distance he clears his throat. "Is there someone inside?" Ivan calls, although he does not expect to hear anything but snarls and growls, perhaps, the low whine of an animal, as he has announced his presence and it will surely attack -

"W-who is it?" calls back a voice, small and shy, and Ivan narrows his eyes. He straightens and lowers his crossbow, but does not yet disarm it.

The tent is obviously of intelligent construction - a human's not exactly unexpected - but with a monster in the woods, how has this human survived? Is it his pet, is it his familiar? Is it his creation?

And then he sees who it is who exits the tent. Ivan cannot stop his jaw from dropping; he must look ungainly like this, his mouth agape in a dumbfounded stupor.

It's a boy. Maybe a man, he's tall, but also very thin, with no beard. Blond-haired. His hair is long, wavy and it curls around his jawline. It's probably the case that he hasn't been to see a barber in a matter of months and his hair once closely cropped has over time become unkempt. He wears an old cape over a ratty shirt and pants that have been mended multiple times. His spectacles are bent and one of the lenses is badly scratched.

But worst of all, he is ... attractive.

There's no way this boy would be any match for the monster, and it makes Ivan sick to think of his small, slender bones in a pile, his pretty face gnawed off. "What are you doing here?" Ivan asks, utterly bewildered.

"I, um, I live here," the boy - man, really, his voice is quiet but deep enough - says. "I-I've lived here awhile now. Are you a traveller? L-Lost? I have some food, water, if you need?"

"I'm not lost," Ivan says as he approaches. "I'm looking for a creature. As tall as twenty feet. A flesh-eater. It lives in these woods, it has killed over twenty men already ... how have you escaped it?" There's no sign of a salt circle or anything - and Ivan isn't convinced that would keep a beast that horrible out, anyway.

"I don't know what you're t-talking about," the man replies. "I haven't seen a single thing like that. And my traps haven't picked anything of the like up. W-well, m-my traps are designed for small game - rabbits, mostly - so it wouldn't surprise me if they were compl-completely ineffective against - against - twenty feet, did you say? That's unbelievable!"

"What are you doing out here, then?" Surely this child doesn't think he can catch the monster before Ivan and get all the gold for himself! With his lack of muscle? Pah! "You can't be hunting - this is King's land. Meditating? You are perhaps an acolyte or monk?"

"I'm. I'm a hermit," the man admits, shyly shuffling his feet and looking down. "I ... I can't be with other people. I'm - I'm different." At Ivan's persistent silence, he clarifies, "I l-like men. Their bodies, their fl-flesh, I can't help myself and - and, and, oh, it's not, it's not natural." He looks sickened. And then he mumbles, "If you're disgusted, you can leave me be. Just d-don't tell anyone I've been trapping on the King's lands. I don't know a s-single p-p-person who'd give me water in th-the stocks."

But Ivan had had no such intention. In fact, Ivan had stopped listening attentively the moment this man revealed his dark, terrible secret (not so dark and terrible at all, nothing like hiding a monster!). "You're joking," he blurts out flatly, and at the man's instant embarrassment he tries to explain himself. "No, I mean - if that's all it is! Really, I had - I did not mean - and I'm not disgusted, I -" know the exact feeling -

Ivan takes a deep breath and finally commits to air the words he's never dared to speak aloud. "I'm like you," he begins, and it becomes so much easier to speak the second this has left his lips. Freer of imprisonment he continues, babbling, "But instead of sequestering myself in a forest I have become nomadic in another way, I take dangerous and difficult jobs. And then nobody wonders why I have not sired children, because with a lifestyle like mine, how could I?"

The man looks almost hopeful. "Y-you too?" he whispers. "I didn't even know there were... Others. I thought, I thought I was alone."

Ivan smiles, relieved and a little euphoric. "Not anymore. I am Ivan," and as he introduces himself he disarms his crossbow. The bolt stays held in place but the weapon is no longer dangerous.

"Matthew," the man replies.

When they shake hands, he finds Matthew's skin is not smooth like the women he'd known, but calloused and rough. But it is warm and more importantly, it makes him tingle all over, and the feeling buries itself quickly between his legs.

Matthew brings him into his tent and lets him rest a spell around the fire he built, where he is slow-roasting a small cut of meat, probably a rabbit he caught, and tells Ivan of his life before he came to the forest. A villager, but not from Odaawa - in fact, he claims, he has never been to that place. No, Matthew is from far off, perhaps four villages over and across a large lake.

He had known a girl once, when he was quite young. Perhaps too young, Matthew reflects - he had been thirteen, she eighteen, and she was forceful and he didn't say no clearly enough, and while he had a good time (at least he thinks he did - Matthew reminds Ivan that he was horribly drunk at the time and also a little terrified and he might've blacked out at some point), ultimately, he didn't enjoy the experience. It's how he learned that his tastes didn't extend towards women.

Ivan nods, supportively. It doesn't match his own stories at all but that doesn't really matter. He's struck by the urge to tell Matthew, 'me too,' in the hopes that fostering similarity, even a dishonest one, would allow him to sit a little closer, touch a little more, because the food in his belly and the fire only warms him so much while Matthew himself seems a lot warmer.

The realisation of twilight comes upon them suddenly, though the colour of the sky from the top of the tent has been slowly fading from the bright grey of overcast afternoon to the murky dark of nightfall. Nevertheless, it's with surprise that Ivan notes, "I didn't realise I had spent so much time here. I'm sorry to have taken up your day."

"Oh, th-that's alright," Matthew says happily. "I haven't had company this enjoyable in - in awhile."

Ivan smiles and blushes, ducking his head in a manner that he thought was silly and coy back when women used it on him, but now seems necessary to avoid Matthew's penetrating and nearly uncomfortable gaze.

Out of courtesy he has not helped himself to a night in Matthew's tent but he hopes - so much - that the invitation will be extended. It doesn't really matter to him for survival purposes - it wouldn't be the first time Ivan had slept outside, in a tree, strapped high up to the thicker branches near the trunk, and he is a light sleeper and not easily overcome even in his repose.

But there is a hunger in him that was not appeased by the small rabbit they shared and this guides him onward, fuelling him. He wants what he has never had the guts to ask for, what he's never dared himself to do.

"Did you still have to hunt?" he asks. There are no weapons in the tent itself, so Ivan assumes that Matthew relies almost entirely on traps.

Matthew shakes his head and looks perfectly adorable doing it, the curls swinging around his handsome face, brushing his angular jaw. "Not for awhile yet. I, uh... I have a little time." He scoots closer to Ivan and if they were sitting near each other before, now Matthew is practically touching him everywhere, aligned with his body from shoulder to knee. Ivan's nerves tingle everywhere they are in contact.

"And what is it that takes time?" Ivan exhales, so close to Matthew that whispering the words as he does in the breathless rush disturbs the gentle curls on his cheek.

Matthew's smile fades to a relaxed line of perfect pink lips and this is all Ivan sees before Matthew moves closer. His eyes slip shut and he feels the slightest puff of air skirt across his face before the warmth on his mouth overtakes all other sensations in his mind.

For a second, Ivan does not move. He sits there, motionless, his top lip captured in the space between Matthew's, his bottom lip caressing the gentle lower curve of Matthew's mouth, and while every nerve is on fire, those in his face seem particularly incensed. His cheeks are hot and his mouth tingles, and then Matthew tilts his head without breaking contact, angling his head to more deeply press himself against the flesh of Ivan's lips.

It's unlike any kiss he's ever had before - well, Ivan is the sort of man who thinks nothing of capturing giant wild creatures dead or alive but he has never managed the audacity to do something so unorthodox as admit feelings for another man (let alone physically act upon them), so his reaction is not so surprising - and within seconds, Ivan is gasping for air, his heart pounding in his chest and his pulse racing in his ears and throat.

Then Matthew presses his hot, wet tongue against Ivan's, and this! this, he's only ever heard rumours about, and the rumours of gross, of damp and sticky and why would anybody think that's arousing hold no resemblance to the reality. He opens up, lets Matthew in - Matthew appears to be the more experienced of the two of them, or at least the one with the greater initiative - and tries not to swoon outright when Matthew attacks, cupping his jaw when he angles his head even more to seal their mouths together, his tongue stroking Ivan's in a way that should be slimy or weird but is nothing short of earth-shatteringly exciting.

Matthew pushes him to the ground easily and holds him there, surprisingly strong for someone so skinny but he has the advantage of being on top. Moreover, Ivan doesn't want to move and is happy to be held down. Matthew attempts undoing the thick leather belt around Ivan's waist and then gives up and simply untucks the shirt.

His beautiful rough, calloused fingers sneak inside and stroke Ivan's belly, his chest, and then pin him down at the hips...

And Ivan lets him. Ivan lets him divest him of most of his clothing - even helps undo his belt - and lets Matthew expose every bit of him to air. Ivan watches as Matthew removes his cape and peels his own shirt off - oh, he is a scrawny thing, but beautiful, and as pale as his skin is, Ivan thinks he glows in the light of the embers of a dying fire. His limbs are dusted with fine golden hair that catches the light once every ten strands, and are just as warm and calloused as Matthew's graceful fingers, though obviously they do not provide as much direct pleasure because Matthew's hand is wrapped around Ivan's erection and oh, beautiful blissful agony, when Matthew touches him just like that he ceases to think entirely.

He nearly comes once out of nervousness before Matthew stammers out, "I, I have a salve, i-it's not used f-for this kind of, but I really want to, and I, ah, I think it'll work?"

"Yes," Ivan moans, thrusting up needily into Matthew's strong grip. "Whatever you like with me, do what you want, I'm yours," he babbles, "all yours."

Matthew grins in a way that reminds Ivan of the biggest alpha wolves he's brought down, and grinds his hot erection into Ivan's naked thigh. "That's exactly what a guy like me likes to hear."

... and suddenly, everything makes horrific, awful sense to Ivan.

"Don't be so nervous," Matthew coos gently - of course, Ivan thinks, beasts like this one can probably smell fear - "I've done this before. It's not so scary."

"By this," Ivan gulps, "you mean ..."

"You know how it works, don't you?"

Ivan doesn't reply - he doesn't know how it works, the bones left no trace of whether the prey had been captured and taken willingly or if the monster preferred the taste of gamey meat flooded with adrenaline.

Matthew continues. "I'll let you fuck me, then," he whispers, and backs up off of Ivan. He stands, removes his pants, and fetches a small ceramic pot of something - near his crossbow, he notes - and then returns to kneel between Ivan's spread legs.

Maybe he was wrong? If that is the case he'd do better to keep an ear out for howls - if the beast is out there, it must be able to smell them, since certainly Ivan can smell them both from where he is on the floor, propped up on his elbows to get a better view.

He wishes he had placed the crossbow nearer.

Below him, Matthew is on his knees, which are spread apart, and is leaning back on his heels. His erection juts out from between his legs and Ivan finds it difficult to stop looking at it.

He feels filled with a mixture of anticipation and fear, and the suspicion has not completely worn off yet, either. But it is abated a little when Matthew dips his fingers into the pot - the salve smells herbal, like aloe with sage - and strokes himself firmly. In the low firelight, his erection practically shines with the salve.

And then Matthew spreads his knees farther apart and leans back more. He trails his hand below his testicles and nudges the hole with his index finger, teases himself by feeling around it before he slips it in and it disappears inside.

The air feels thinner. Ivan finds it hard to breathe in here.

"You like this," Matthew breathes, "you can't tear your eyes off me." He inserts a second finger and wraps his other hand around his shiny hard erection (it looks so human, he looks so human) to fist it in time with the small thrusts inwards from his fingers. Matthew adds a third, separates them enough to stretch himself, and cants his hips up a little. "Is it so unimaginable? I guess it is." He shoves the fingers up himself further and grunts. "Such a shock that there's someone else like you, you and I are so rare I feel like if I look away you'll disappear, that I've dreamed you -"

"Enough," Ivan croaks out roughly.

He can't take much more of this torturous agony without at least touching himself, he feels so hard he's aching, and he wants to bury himself in this pretty boy - this monster? He doesn't know.

But ... it seems like the monster is inside the tent and Ivan should seize his first opportunity to escape.

And yet ...

He doesn't.

What if whatever beast the blond is, is unlike the mammal he'd conjured in his mind, and is more like the black widow? Like the praying mantis?

Ivan has horrible visions of Matthew bringing him to orgasm and ripping his head off shortly thereafter to suck out his spinal fluid directly, electing to spend tomorrow curing and smoking the meat on his thighs into jerky.

This thought should petrify him, and yet his erection doesn't wane in strength. If anything he grows harder. It's the fear, he tells himself, the thrill, the danger. His foolish body is misinterpreting things. (But intercourse or not, he will not be murdered tonight, he vows!)

With a slow grin Matthew mounts him and directs his erection in - and then slowly descends upon it. And, human or not, Matthew is tight and hot and perfect, just slick enough to ease himself in like he was meant for this, but not so much that there's no friction. As Ivan thrusts up, taking what he's been so kindly offered, he moans and arches his back entirely off the forest floor, baring his neck to a monster.

His eyes slip shut. In a moment of helplessness he thinks, oh god, do your worst to me. Maybe I want you to. Take me.

He has made the stupid mistake of taking his eyes off Matthew, and when he opens them again Matthew's mouth is by his jawline, where the tendons of his neck are thick and taut. Proprioception and his own tantalising horror at what Matthew may do to him make the sensation of perhaps-but-perhaps-not incredible - will Matthew bite down, will he rip out the veins and arteries, would it spray his golden hair a wet dark burgundy? Does he want to peel back the layers of skin one by one, will Ivan die slowly of shallow wounds?

When Matthew finally lays his mouth on his neck, he does bite down and it hurts but not as much as Ivan thought it would. He's not sure if the wet he feels is saliva or his own blood. Either way, he cups the back of Matthew's head and holds him there, his fingers woven through Matthew's hair, in encouragement.

The sensation and the uncertainty brings him closer to orgasm more quickly than he's ever been, even by himself, even with his own fantasies, and he thrusts hard and deep upwards into Matthew like it'll quench this thirst instead.

It does not work. It only makes him more frantic and desperate.

Ivan wastes some strength by pulling out and grabbing Matthew by the shoulders. He flips Matthew over forcefully and throws him to the floor, winding him. He may regret that later.

As Matthew gasps for air, he seals their lips together and thrusts in again, violent and overtaken by lust. Ivan's nerves feel sharp as a knife-edge, however, as Matthew moans into his mouth, and he waits for the beast to attack him properly, taunting it by fucking him. Come on, he thinks, I want your fury!

Matthew digs his nails into the soft skin of Ivan's hips - not nails, no, they're too sharp for nails - and bites down sharply on his lower lip. This time, it must break skin for sure, it feels different than on his neck, feels hot, feels split.

Ivan thinks he can hear the capillaries complain as they flood both their mouths with the tang of blood. Then Matthew pulls one part of his split lip into his mouth and tongues the exposed muscle.

Ivan cannot hold back the needy gasp-moan this wrenches from him.

The sharp pinch and the hot throb as the open wound aches are not unwanted, and between these, and the exquisite way Matthew's claws dig into his back and tear the skin back savagely - his mind a perfect mess, he himself feels more animal than human now too -

- Ivan shoves himself into Matthew and howls as he comes, every part of him in contact with Matthew pleasantly warm, and those that are bleeding on fire.

When he reopens his eyes, Matthew has already begun changing. His skin has lost any glow reflected from the fire and no longer looks fair and warm but matte and sallow under a thin sheen of sweat. "You said you were like me!" he rasps from below Ivan, and his beautiful face twists into an expression of betrayal and confusion.

"It's clear we didn't understand what the other meant," Ivan pants. He fights his panic off with a misplaced half-giggle. "I told you, I was hunting! I told you what I was hunting and you let me in here." Matthew growls, his lips curling to reveal long, thin, sharp incisors.

Ivan is still buried inside Matthew, but when he sees those teeth, and the protrusions growing at the sides of Matthew's temples - horns? antlers? that must have been what the lone witness had meant by hair sticking straight out in weird ways - his stupid penis shows renewed interest in the side of Matthew he has yet to meet.

Apparently he is sicker than he thought, and he wonders whether he will ever be able to face his mother, if he even survives this encounter.

He pulls himself out of Matthew, rolls off and away, and clambers to his feet to get to the crossbow, but Matthew digs his claws deep into his calf - maybe he manages to plunge them into the muscles but Ivan doesn't look back to check, to him it is just numbing, blind pain - and Ivan hits the ground, face-first, before he can reach the weapon.

Matthew crawls on top of him to hold him down. This should not feel as delicious as it does, but orgasm and terror and the flash of pain from his calf has addled his mind more than a little, the adrenaline has made him bolder and also, he can feel Matthew still hard against him.

Part of him wants to spread his legs and hope that Matthew can be human enough to fuck him hard. The other part - the one that is slightly more rational - knows that Matthew does not intend to take him like that, and that Ivan shouldn't want him to, either.

Ivan bucks his head up sharply, hitting Matthew in the face with the back of his head. In the confusion that follows he crawls on his stomach desperately to reach the crossbow - just a little farther, his hand is almost there -

Matthew growls behind him but he has reached it. There's not yet enough time to arm it but the instrument is also large and dull. Ivan swings his hand around, twisting in a way that has the claw marks on his back protesting, and strikes Matthew's face with the crossbow so hard that it throws Matthew off him.

Then Ivan dives for the arrow he'd prepared in the bow hours ago, the one that fell out when he put down the weapon to sit beside Matthew's fire, and points the crossbow down at the ground. He anchors it with the foot of his good leg and makes short work of the string, lacing it up tight and arming it with the bolt before Matthew recovers.

When he has finished he tilts the weapon up and points it up -

- right into an enraged monster's face.

For a short second they both freeze.

He's surprised to find Matthew - the creature - back on his feet so soon. Evidently the beast recovers more quickly than the other animals he's hunted. His legs have changed now - the lower shins are bowed back significantly, like a deer's, which fits with the magnificent pair of what can only be antlers on the crown of his head. His skin is a dull dove grey, decorated by dark scabs and sores, and covered by a thin whitish down.

Strange beast, but majestic. If it weren't for the fact that its face and claws were dripping his blood - and with every passing second that he wastes admiring Matthew's otherworldly demonic beauty, the thing that was Matthew grows taller and thinner - Ivan wouldn't be aiming an arrow to shoot him at all.

The rest of his arrows that fit the crossbow are in the quiver he set down when he first entered Matthew's tent, over by the tent flap. The beast stands between him and them, and also his only exit.

Ivan needs about ten seconds to cock the string every time he prepares an arrow. The monster has legs that are seven feet long and this tent is not so large anymore.

If Ivan wants to succeed he must put some space between him and the beast.

But if he waits any longer any movement from the monster might tear the tent down, and if he finds himself underneath large swathes of heavy leather with a cannibal, his chances will be so much smaller.

He thinks quickly. Those limbs look so thin - it seems like there is barely enough skin to cover the bone - but Ivan doesn't want to underestimate them.

The monster and its spindly limbs are fast - in the time it takes for Ivan to re-aim the weapon, it has bent and is halfway across the cave, its frightening arm raised to strike him - but Ivan shoots, hits the beast's thigh in what he thinks is the muscle, and rolls past it in a front tuck between its legs as the creature falls forward, stumbling and striking nothing.

He reaches out blindly, somehow making blessed contact with the quiver of arrows as he gets to his feet.

Ivan runs and does not look behind him.

It's strange how he can't even feel his leg anymore. The muscles must still work - it is not dead weight that he must drag around with him; rather the leg seems to work perfectly fine. But he can't seem to feel anything anymore. It doesn't matter; his mind has selected flight and this appears to have overruled any debilitating pain.

He's sure he'll pay for this later. In fact, if he doesn't get back to the village soon, his bigger threat will be infection.

Ivan finds a particularly thick tree trunk to hide behind. He stops, catches his breath, and points his weapon to the ground to reload it.

The monster can smell him, no doubt, he thinks as he laces the string to cock the bow. If it weren't for the fact that he'd slept with it - the monster must certainly know how he smells now - he is also injured. His leg flows freely and his lip throbs so beautifully that he doesn't bother stopping himself from running his tongue over it.

His lower lip is badly split - the cut is along the left side and is so deep it separates the muscle into two parts. It will probably scar if he doesn't manage to infect it. He ignores reason briefly to nibble at it and worry the wound just a little more.

If only Matthew had retained some humanity, he reflected, a little disappointed. Ivan didn't realise how much he liked this, and ... and they could have been very good together.

A rustle of the branches above him reminds him of the ever present danger. Unfortunately, this is the way things went, and he needs to keep his focus instead of dwelling in a fantasy world where everything works out well.

The point is, there is no stopping the beast from finding him. In fact, there's no running away either, not when his leg is a disadvantage. Even if the beast is down a leg too, the beast has better leg span and stride length anyway.

Ivan doesn't fancy his chances running. He'll never make it out of the forest. So ... it leaves him no choice but to stay and fight.

With resolve he sets his jaw, raises the weapon and whirls out from behind the tree to find -

Nothing.

Empty space. Other trees, all too thin or small or both to hide a creature like that.

Ivan narrows his eyes. Where did it go?

This is dangerous, he thinks, stepping out from behind the tree and retracing his steps. It is dark out, the moon throws him only the feeblest of light and this beast could be lurking literally anywhere. And he has one shot at it, unless he can put distance between successive shots.

That thing is so eerily thin that he could easily miss. It is not like trying to wound a great bear.

He takes another cautious step or two, constantly looking around him. One false move, one shoulder not checked, and he is dead.

Which reminds him ... the beast must be hungry, and growing hungrier with every human it hunts, he realises. It explains why the bones at the bottom showed less frenzy. It eats, and it eats, but the more it eats the hungrier it is, like some sort of subtraction soup.

But it's strange how well this beast has developed the ability to make itself simply disappear. Especially since it's starving, and so emaciated it must want to eat the first thing it spots. That sort of hunger, that desperation ... perhaps Matthew is no longer human, but retains a human-like cunning in keeping his morphed, disfigured self out of sight.

No matter how quickly Ivan could move, it would move faster.

The feeling of being watched, Ivan knows, is not something that is shed easily and especially not in moments of panic.

He goes a further ten minutes without a single encounter. Not one movement that isn't the underbrush - a shrew, a garter snake, something perfectly innocuous and that small movement could not possibly be the monster but it raises Ivan's hackles and sends chills down his spine.

The flap of wings makes him startle, an owl's hoot makes him twist sharply but, of course, there's nothing to fire at. It's not even possible for the demon that was once Matthew to make these noises - the creature had no wings. It vocalised only growls and snarls, no birdsong.

But Ivan barely holds it together with every single one.

It's the quiet. It must be. The perfect, dead, quiet, that is disturbed only by the other inhabitants of the forest, innocently going about their night.

This beast is patient. Cunning, and patient.

That distresses Ivan.

A game hunter as he is tends to focus on animals with animal-like predator strategy. Bears are easier to understand; wolves, too. The firebird he hunted a few kingdoms over was intelligent but ultimately still only a bird.

He cannot outrun this beast, but can he outsmart it? Is that possible?

Another rustle behind him and he resists the urge to turn around. It's nothing, again. It's an animal, perhaps, or just the wind through the bushes -

...no.

No.

This, this is the beast's plan.

With wide eyes, Ivan realises his folly - he has been wrong to suggest that it is in any way animal. Matthew is the animal and the human and his mind has been present throughout this entire ordeal, at all points.

Matthew is watching him. Waiting for him to become sufficiently distracted. Then he will strike.

So Ivan twists and feints confusion, lets his panic consume him to make the beast think he's very frightened - only to find -

- the bushes, their small leaves moving. It looks like nothing.

As he expected.

Ivan is silent and keeps his ears alert until - thud thud thud THUD behind him -

He whirls around, sees the brilliant purple-blue of Matthew's eyes inches from his, and aims his crossbow for between them.

He fires once.

His aim is - unfortunately - perfect.

Matthew the monster falls to the ground, the bolt of Ivan's crossbow embedded in his brain.

.:.

Ivan returns to Matthew's tent and redresses. No longer skyclad, he picks up the knife he keeps in his boot and returns to Matthew's fallen, slain body, to make short work of the head and neck.

It's the only way he'll get paid, bringing back proof of the monster's demise. But once he has decapitated it, and before he begins the trek back to Odaawa, he smoothes the hair back, traces the outline of the antlers with respect and awe, and kisses the creature's lips soundly.

They are still warm.

He clutches the head to his chest and recites aloud a quiet prayer for Matthew, and then one for himself.

.:.

It takes a few days, but Ivan finally realises that what he ate in Matthew's tent was not rabbit, and that Matthew's condition is transmittable, and that there is nobody qualified to hunt him down.

Like the parting gift of a lover, he thinks bitterly, and smiles.

.:.

To my dear mother -

The latest assignment was a success, as you will know by the amount of gold that is waiting for you here in Odaawa. I regret I cannot be there to give it you myself; I regret further that I can no longer return home. It seems I have finally bitten off more than I could chew.

I took the liberty of purchasing you a new house. Odaawa is a safe town now, a quiet town, and it is by the sea. People are kind here. As I've found, if you ply Gizhiibatoo the shepherd with wine, he will give you discounts on roving. Niigaanii the innkeeper knows you will be coming and has the deed and key for the property; he will show you the way. As for the rest, directions to where it is hidden are provided inside your new bedroom. Check the spinning wheel.

Be well. Pray for me, and maybe it will be enough to save my soul.

All my love,

Your Vanya