The locals said the first disappearances occurred in the winter, but no one could see a pattern then. Folk had just assumed that the missing had merely lost their way and died somewhere of exposure. It was, all agreed, an exceptionally cold winter with more than its fair share of blizzards.
An approximation of the proper rites were conducted for every missing person, or as proper as the rites could be without a body. Widows mourned, widowers drank, orphans left to go live with relatives, and bereft parents waited up at night for their little ones to come home again against all hope or reason.
It wasn’t until later, after the snows had melted and the weather had warmed, that several villages realized that they’d all suffered an unusual number of losses. Not only that, but disappearances were still happening on a regular basis, despite the milder weather. People would leave to tend their fields, collect firewood, or hunt and never come home.
A group of local men traveled to Aumflau, the nearest town of any import, to petition the burgomeister. Heeding their concerns, he, in turn, dispatched a letter to Parder addressed to the Jaegerhalle there. The morning after the letter arrived, in the dark stillness before the sun has yet risen, four horsemen left the Jaegerhalle and rode out the River Gate, taking the Imperial Highway towards Aumflau.
The four Jaegers conferred at their table in the common room of Dorverk’s only inn.
“After hearing accounts and studying the region, I think we can safely narrow our search to this forest here,” Gaberich said, pointing to the map on the table. “All four affected villages border this forest and all the missing either entered the forest or were traveling along its border the last time they were seen.”
“I also noticed that none of the missing were in groups,” said Einslow. “All were about their business with no one else.”
Talmo held up his hand and started ticking off points, finger by finger, “Forest, single targets, an area of about 20 square miles, no remains ever found, and usually taken somewhere between evening and early morning… sounds like one possibility, really.”
Gaberich nodded. “It likely moved in across the border. The forest extends into Orland for quite a ways. Would explain why it just started this winter.”
Blund, who had been silent thus far, said, “We should find someone from the area who knows those woods. We’ll need all the help we can get on this one.”
“That’s a fair idea, Blund,” said Gaberich. “We’ll ask around in the morning. For now, I want you all to go to your rooms, check and recheck your gear, and get some rest. I want to find a guide and enter the forest tomorrow an hour before noon. That should give us a large enough window in which to hunt with relative safety.”
Gaberich wrote a letter that night in his own chambers. In the morning, he left it in plain sight on the desk, sealed with the Jaeger’s emblem and addressed to his superior in Parder. If something happened to them, he hoped that the innkeeper was sharp enough to see the letter on its way. He met his squad downstairs dressed in their leathers and carrying their steel.
They found a local woodsman, Arl, who was supposed to know the woods better than anybody. He agreed to guide them.
“We’re looking for a cave or even a ridge with an overhang. How many places are there like that in these woods?” said Gaberich.
Arl scrunched his face up. “Caves? Just one cave that I know of this side of the border. Deep in there, maybe eight miles in from the closest edge.”
Einslow raised his eyebrows. “Really, just the one?”
Arl scowled at Einslow. “I’ve been walking these woods since these villages were Orlish. Just the one cave anywhere nearby. Rather large, somewhat deep. Not remarkable.”
“What we’re hunting don’t need remarkable accommodations,” said Blund.
“What are we hunting, Master Jaegers?”
Arl wished them best of luck after giving them precise directions on how to find the cave. Gaberich didn’t blame the man. It took them about three hours to find the cave through the rough terrain. They smelled the place before they saw it. It was early afternoon, hot, and utterly silent save for the breeze soughing through the branches.
The Jaegers worked silently now. Their plans were already laid, their tactics memorized, their foe studied. Gaberich and Blund ran point with long spears, the edges specially designed to puncture thick hides and stick once in. Einslow and Talmo came behind with their crossbows, bolts already loaded.
They entered the cave and immediately saw its previous inhabitant’s remains. The bear had been tossed against the cave wall, old blood stains streaked fifteen feet to the cave floor, left as the bear had slid down to its final resting place.
They heard a rhythmic rumbling as they went deeper. They came across the first human bones about thirty yards in, cracked in half and hollowed of marrow. Thirty more yards brought them around a bend and in sight of the creature.
The dim light revealed the ogre sleeping upon a mound of broken bones, discarded garments, and its own waste. The stench was atrocious. Einslow and Talmo took positions at the bend while Gaberich and Blund crept forward. If they could take it asleep, they could end this quickly.
Gaberich’s foot shifted a small skull, sending it clattering down a small heap of bones into a rib cage. The Jaegers froze as the rumbled snores of the ogre stopped and a great yellow eye opened. It began to rise and Blund charged, yelling as he went, aiming his spear at the ogre’s heart. The spear bit deep into the ogre’s flesh and it roared in outrage. Blund twisted the spear in the ogre, but he’d missed his mark. Einslow and Talmo fired their crossbows, both striking the creature on its outstretched arm as it reached for Blund. Gaberich was at the creature now and attempted to spear it as well, but it swatted Gaberich aside with its free hand and grabbed Blund around the torso before he could draw his blade fully.
Blund yelled, his sword arm stuck against his body, as the ogre stood up, hunched over because the cave’s ceiling was too low for it to fully straighten. It moaned and rolled its eyes before squeezing its fist, its corded arms straining. Blund’s yelling stopped immediately as his bones cracked all at once under the monster’s fantastic strength. Blood gushed from his head and lower body in great torrents, the pressure too immense to bear.
The crossbowmen continued to fire bolts into the creature as it brought its gaping mouth down on Blund’s head, ripping it from his torso like a man eating soft bread. Gaberich had recovered, his ribs in agony, and speared through the creature’s heart, using Blund’s spear to better gauge the sweet spot. The ogre seized up as Gaberich gritted his teeth and twisted the spear around, shredding tissue as he went.
The creature fell forward, vomiting Blund’s remains up as it toppled. Einslow and Talmo rushed forward to aid Gaberich.
“Gods damn it, it was my fault it woke up,” Gaberich gasped. “Blund shouldn’t have paid the price.”
“Blund knew the risks, Gaberich,” said Einslow.
“Aye. He died to stop… this,” said Talmo, glancing around at the dozens of scattered skeletons. “His sworn duty, and ours, as Jaegers.”
Gaberich knew they were right, but Blund’s death still weighed on him heavily as they set the lair to the torch. They gathered what was left of Blund and departed the cursed ossuary deep in the woods.
I had to choose a one word title for this flash fiction challenge and tell a story with it in under 1000 words. I failed to keep it under the 1000 word mark. Oh well.