by Max Barry

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Region: Xedas

(I was heavily inspired by The Shining when I wrote this.)

The wind was blowing, and hard. Unrelenting, cruel, cold gusts furiously roared outside the small house's windows, occasionally rattling the building's window panes. The snow was falling down so thick that you could barely see your hand if you were to fully extend your arm and position it in front of your face. Such was Dringa's climate. Most folks who lived in the state had gotten used to the cold; it was a life or death scenario. You froze or you didn't. The spring thaw was short-lived, and almost as soon as it was time, the skies opened up and cold, white flakes of snow started falling once again. In any case, the little house offered warmth and a break from the bone-chilling weather.

The house was home to a grumpy old man, about 50 or so. His name was Wencil, a human. He'd come to the frozen hellscape years ago, back when Messaria sent settlers to the dark frontier of Umbra, back before Vrathiir was a thing. He and dozens of others had come under some noble by the name of Malch von Malinhou. When their ships reached the shore, all seemed truly glorious indeed. But then Malch up and died a month later, mauled by a bear on a hunting trip. To date, no one had managed to kill that bear, and not many people tried. Wencil tried, though. Every spring he'd go up to Mount Scoyn and try and find the bear. He never saw it though. That beast proved too elusive for even the great hunter, Wencil of Trommen.

Wencil was enjoying the little fire he'd built, and was now roasting a large hunk of a great elk over it. The smell was intoxicating, only making his hunger greater. Suddenly, he heard three quick knocks on the door. Strange. He hadn't been expecting anyone, and he doubted any of Trommen's residents would take time out of their day to go visit the grouchy old village huntsman, but he opened the door nonetheless.

He was greeted by three soldiers, two murus, one human. "Master huntsman." Said the first soldier, pushing up the visor of his Sallet. "As you are aware, you're rather isolated from the village. Not by much, but enough to... pose a slight danger. It would appear that a killer's running loose on this bitter cold night."

"A killer?" Wencil said, not entirely believing the soldier's words. "Yes, a killer. The quarry's foreman and his family are all dead. Met a rather grisly end." This concerned Wencil. He'd visited the foreman's residence earlier that day to drop off a fine new hunting bow. The foreman's wife even invited him in for some soup. The foreman's residence was also a little ways out from the village, around the same distance as Wencil's own home. "They took an ax from around the back and butchered 'em like pigs. Not fun at all." Said another soldier. His comrade elbowed him in his ribs, giving him a look that said 'now's not the time'. The soldier got the message. Wencil was speechless.

"Well, we'll leave you to it. Sorry for the disturbance." Said a soldier, and the band mounted their steeds and rode off. Wencil was still processing all this as he watched them go. For the first time in his adult life, he was actually scared. However, the man still had a hard time believing the soldiers' words. The foreman was a burly man. Strong, hulking. He towered over others in the village. Whenever Jakob the Innkeeper hosted fights in the town square, the Foreman almost always took the first prize. In short, he was not an easy man to best in feats of martial strength. Perhaps he'd been sleeping when he'd been killed. Wencil would have to go see the Foreman's house for himself.

Upon arriving at the secluded residence, the hunter immediately saw signs of struggle. For one, the windows of the house were shattered, the shutters off their hinges. Secondly, there were visible blood stains trailing into the house. Tracing the blood stains back to their origin, Wencil could see two small lumps in the snowy blanket that coated the area. Dismounting from his horse, Wencil trudged over to the lumps and brushed away some snow. The lumps were in fact the Foreman's guard dogs. It was a sad sight, to say the least.

Trudging away from the dogs, Wencil mentally prepared himself for what he might see upon entering the house. Fully opening the already somewhat opened door, Wencil dared to look inside. What he saw was truly grotesque. Before him lay the body of the Foreman, half-buried in a heap of snow. His face was permanently stuck in a twisted expression, his mouth agape in a distressed frown, his eyes squinting but not seeing. His arms were also frozen, extending out as if he was in a fight, his hands clamped into fists. Towards the back of the house, there was another heap of snow. However, Wencil knew what would be under that one, and the thought horrified him. He'd look no further. It was time to go home.