Okay, so this chapter is a little odd. You'll all have seen no update last week due to important real life work that CF had, but I'm not sure if it was misconstrued, misunderstood or if more work came out of nowhere, but CF has not had a final chance to go over THIS chapter, either. I have to update it, though. I simply don't have time to write another Relic chapter. As such, while this chapter DOES follow CF's plans and intent, it may not be perfected in the way CF wants it.
I'll apologise for that, but again, there isn't much I can do as I had to have something posted.
Director: College Fool
Writer: Coeur al'Aran
Cover Art: Kegi Springfield
It started, as many disasters did, with a death.
A young boy under eighteen years of age found killed on the outskirts of the village with his chest torn open. Most of his meat and organs remained, torn asunder and left to rot in the sun. It was that which told the people it was a Grimm that had acted, and soon those who could fight were roaming the surrounding area, searching for the beast.
Days passed without sight or sound, and soon the people began to believe it just a wandering Grimm that had caught an unlucky boy. Like so many others before him, the fallen was soon consigned to the fate of a tragic encounter.
Until another died. Not a boy this time, nor a child, but rather an elderly woman, wise and experienced, though frail with age. The villagers were perplexed, not only because the old lady knew better than to travel alone, but because she had left the safety of the walls and travelled outside to be killed. That or she had been dragged out there, but with no blood trails to mark a path and no screams during the night, such seemed impossible.
When the third died – a little girl not eleven years old – the people knew that a Grimm had set up its den in their land, and a request was sent to the cities for a huntsman to come and deal with it.
While they waited, the local hunters did their best to track and find the beast, though they often met with no success. Those in the village were warned not to leave its walls and never to travel at night. By the time the huntsman arrived, a proud and powerful warrior from the cities, another villager had fallen.
This time, a hunter.
The shock of it sent reverberations through the community, even as the huntsman assured them all would be well now that he had arrived. To the other hunters, the death of one of their own was unthinkable, not through skill or great ability, but through simple caution. The man had died without his weapon, outside and on the outskirts of the village. For an experienced huntsman to travel alone in that situation, especially with the beast about, it was too suspicious.
A local hunter brought this to the attention of the huntsman hoping it would aid in his investigation, but the huntsman ignored it. That a civilian had died was tragic but no surprise. The Grimm chose everyone equally.
The hunter tried to argue, to explain that this was different – that his friend would not have travelled alone and that there was something more here, but the huntsman knew his training and bade the villagers stay behind. Alone, he travelled into the woodlands around the settlement, hunting for the monster which had already slain so many.
Frustrated, both at his lack of ability to stop the madness and his casual dismissal, the hunter chose to look into the matter himself. The death of one of their own spoke of something more and he knew there was truth in the signs the huntsman had chosen to ignore. Of particular surprise to him was that the fallen hunter's hound had not saved him, or at least alerted others to the danger. The hunter could not and would not have travelled alone without it so late at night.
The same was true of the elderly woman, he realised, and of the children from before. To those who lived surrounded by Grimm, dogs were a necessary protection. While a crafty Grimm might be able to sneak past, it was unusual that no alarm had been raised. Worse still, the dogs of those who had been slain were nowhere to be found. With a cold pit in his stomach, the hunter collected his traps, bow and dog, and set off into the wilderness.
The huntsman returned within twelve hours with news of Grimm slain. While initially sceptical, the huntsman took several hunters and the mayor of the village to the scene of the battle, revealing great gouges torn into the ground and tracks of several large Grimm. The huntsman had found and ambushed them close to the village, slaying all with the ease and power of a true huntsman.
"My work here is done," he declared. "Your village has been saved and the people are safe now."
But the village was frightened and uncertain, and the hunters were not so sure. They explained their fears to the huntsman who, although he looked down on them, understood their panic.
"I will stay for two more nights and patrol the land," he said. "Grimm are mindless and will attack the moment they see me. You will see that none do, and once you do, you will know that the threat has been dealt with."
And, true to his promise, the huntsman did stay. Each morning he would stride out into the Grimmlands, and every few hours he would return. The people watched as he marched through open terrain with not a care in the world. They watched as he scoured the nearby woods. They watched as he lit a bonfire and waited by it, shouting out to any Grimm that he was there.
No Grimm approached, and as the day turned into the second the people began to realise that the danger was well and truly over. Even so, the huntsman stayed another night. And, when the villagers awoke to find him hale and hearty in the morning, they rejoiced. The monster had been slain and the people were safe once more.
The hunter challenged the huntsman before he left, however.
"Grimm can be found anywhere," the hunter said. "What evidence is there that the ones you slew were responsible?"
"You have seen me walk the plains for two days," the huntsman replied. "If there were any other Grimm out there they would have attacked me. There are none that remain for I have slain them all."
The hunter disagreed. "Had the Grimm been so aggressive, we would have seen it when we walked those same plains. This Grimm hides. It lures and ambushes its prey."
"Grimm do not do that," the huntsman said, with the self-assured knowledge of one who had been trained to understand his prey. "Grimm are mindless beasts and attack their prey without warning. It is more likely your people were simply caught off guard."
"And the dogs that have gone missing?"
"Fled or lost," the huntsman replied.
The hunter was not satisfied, nor was he convinced, but faced with the adoration of the crowds and the cheers from the village, he held his tongue. The huntsman departed that night, returning to the city while the village turned back to normal life.
For one young boy this was not the case, however. Fourteen years old and training to become a hunter of his own, the boy had spent the day looking for his dog, who had gone missing that morning. None had seen it and many were those who claimed it would return, for it was trained well and loved its master.
Come night and no return, the boy became nervous, and set out to travel the village, calling its name. Young as he may have been, the boy was no fool and kept to the village. He called from the walls, the gates, and even poking his head outside.
It was two hours later when the boy, almost in tears, was forced to consider giving up for the night. Until, to his shock, he heard a sound.
His dog cried out for him.
The boy cried back, summoning him with a whistle, but the dog whined loudly, indicating that it was hurt or unable to move. Fearing his pet ensnared in a trap or hurt somehow, the boy rushed from the safety of the walls, following the whimpering sounds to a small collection of jagged rocks with a pool at the bottom. He splashed into them, calling his dog's name, desperate and drunk on hope and concern for his faithful companion. It whimpered back from a small cave set beneath the rocks.
Crying in relief, the boy splashed forward and into it, holding a small torch before him to illuminate the darkness. The beam shone about the cave, finding rocks and lichen, a shallow pool of water, and finally a fluffy paw. The torch shone further up, revealing his beloved dog.
Its throat slit, its insides spilled across the rock floor.
The boy fell back and screamed. It was this which saved his life, for the claws that would have beheaded him instead whistled harmlessly above. He fell back into the water with a loud splash and screamed again, eyes locked onto the tall figure above him, a Beowolf stood on its hind legs, bone mask cracked and teeth dripping with saliva. Its red eyes stared down on him. Its lips parted. And to the boy's horror, the sound of his dog's agonised whimper echoed from that terrible maw.
The boy screamed.
A voice cried out.
And a huge dog barrelled into the back of the monster.
As the Beowolf fell, a figure crashed into the water, taking the boy under the shoulders and dragging him away. The hunter from before, the one who had not believed, hauled the boy to shore and whistled for his hound, summoning the dog back before the monster could harm it. The two and one dog made their way across the rocks, the boy in tears and the hunter fearing for both their lives.
Below, the beast that had stalked the village roared its anger and gave pursuit. Its great claws gouged into stone as it scaled the rocks like some great spider, cutting the two off before they could fully escape. The hunter, seeing their path blocked, cursed and led the boy aside, down a different path and further away from the village, away from safety.
The Grimm had known the path of their retreat, had understood how to prevent it, had strategized and laid a trap for its prey. This was no mindless beast, but rather an intelligent monster. The hunter realised this as it chased them, but his was not to be surprised, for a hunter always assumed the worst and was prepared for it.
As the monster came upon them, he hauled the boy into a thicket of trees and off the main path, causing the beast to follow. With a barked command he sent his dog to snap at its heels, calling it back the moment the Grimm tried to focus on it. When it did, he would fire an arrow, pinning a shaft into its body and whittling away.
Eventually, the Grimm lost what little patience it had. With a mighty roar it ignored the hound and leapt for its prey, seeking to kill them at a moment where the hunter and the boy were pressed against a tree, trapped for its pleasure.
Or so it might have seemed. The hunter pushed the boy aside and leapt the other way, dragging on a rope that hung from a branch as he did. As the Grimm landed, its fore-foot dug into a pile of leaves. With a loud, mechanical snap, the metal trap sealed shut, biting into flesh. The rope the hunter had pulled on caused it to pull back, dragging the beast up and against the tree, locking it in place.
The hunter considered it then but decided he could not risk the killing blow. He had no arrows, only a knife for a weapon and his dog was already lightly wounded from the first encounter. There was also the boy to protect. Taking him in hand, the two made their way back to the village to tell their story. Equipped with fresh arrows and accompanied by twenty of the strongest men, the hunter led them back to the location of his trap.
Only to find the snap-trap swinging in the wind, its teeth wet with blood and a Grimm's arm dissolving on the floor, gnawed off at the elbow.
In the distance, a dog whimpered.
Jaune finished his tale with a sigh, sat in the centre of the cannibal's cabin with a small fire flickering between them. "Ever since, he was given the name of Dogsnatcher. An ambush predator that would abduct and kill animals, then mimic their cries of distress to grieving owners. When they inevitably sought to rescue their beloved pets, they too would fall to the monster. And it looks like it's learned to use traps now as well. Damn it."
"A Grimm that learns," Ren commented. "That's… interesting."
"Interesting? It's bad news is what it is. That damn thing watches people and figures out their weaknesses and knows when to retreat and hide. This is the last thing we need."
"Is it really so much of a problem?"
Jaune shot him an angry look. "Did you even listen to what I just said!?"
"No, I did, and I can see why Dogsnatcher would be a threat to civilians out here – his method of luring people out is disgusting, but also rather cunning. What I'm less sure of is why that's such an issue to use, however. Neither of us has a dog to be lured away by and now that I know what it was I've been hearing, I'm hardly going to wander off alone."
"And besides," he went on, "the thing only has one arm now, right? It already avoided that huntsman because it knew it couldn't fight him, and now it's even weaker. I don't see how this would be a threat to us."
"You weren't so calm last night," Jaune spat.
"Because we had no idea what it was or how strong," he reasoned. "If this thing is going to keep stalking and watching us, we'll still have to ration our sleep and be on guard at all times. Hm, with that in mind, it might actually be better not to let it continue. If we hunted it down and killed it now, that would save us effort in the future, right? How many Grimm can there be which know how to disarm your traps?"
He expected the hunter to be on board with the idea, but Jaune slammed a hand down against the floorboards instead. "Are you even listening to yourself? This is exactly what that legend was supposed to warn people against. You're acting no better than that useless huntsman!"
Ren blinked, caught off guard by the sudden anger. "What?"
"You're talking about going after Dogsnatcher when that's exactly what it wants. It's an ambush predator that lures people out, and now you're saying you want to go find it. Well tell me genius, how is that any different from you being lured out in the first place?"
"Because I'm aware of what it is and prepared for combat," Ren said, quite reasonably. "That's a rather marked difference on a young boy looking for hid go, or even Pete the Butcher going out alone because he thinks his own is in danger." And that explained where the cannibal's dog was, of course, slain by Dogsnatcher. "I'm fully armed, trained and specifically looking to be ambushed by a three-legged Beowolf. I'm prepared."
The traps would be an issue and were obviously a new trick Dogsnatcher had picked up. Ironically, he'd probably learned the value of them at the moment he lost his arm, though whether he'd learned it from the hunters in that area, or from them, was yet to be seen. Either way, he wasn't too proficient with them yet, since that trap earlier in the bushes was placed in a terrible spot.
The biggest danger was what had befallen Pete here, that Dogsnatcher would remove a trap around your sleeping area and then lure you out. A hunter, assuming there could be no Grimm for no trap had been sprung, would be left all the more unaware of the danger. It was insidious really, but again it was only a threat to the average person.
"Arrogance," Jaune said, shaking his head. "I was right; you are as bad as the huntsman in that story. He assumed he knew everything about Grimm, too. He assumed nothing could trick him, and as such he failed in his duty. He left and forced the village to deal with the problem themselves. And just like you, he refused to listen to the words of someone he considered `lesser` than he."
Ren chose not to respond to that one, even if he did feel an uncharacteristic spike of anger. It wasn't that he wasn't listening; he'd pored over the legend in his head and not interrupted once, even as he instinctively realised it was badly tinted with Jaune's anti-huntsman prejudice.
A story by locals on how one of those `city-folk` had failed but local wisdom and hard work had paid off. It was just what he would have expected from them, and more so from Jaune. That didn't mean the legend wasn't true of course, but it was coloured in such a way as to make the huntsman in it seem like an idiot.
"Fine," he said, relenting. "What do you suggest, then? Dogsnatcher is going to follow us and keep messing with our camp. We're literally the only humans out here, so I doubt he's going to get bored and wander off."
"East," Jaune said. "We'll travel east."
"To the south-east pass and back to the frontier?"
Jaune didn't answer, but instead focused on packing his belongings away, one eye on the door at all times as if he expected the monster to come charging through. Ren half-hoped it would, if only so they could put an end to it. It wasn't arrogant to think they could take a Beowolf head on, and he had listened carefully to Jaune's story.
The beast wasn't like Mouk with his incredible size and strength, but rather something that ambushed and laid traps. Fighting it in an open engagement would be the best way to deal with it, but, if Jaune wanted to do things this way, he supposed there was nothing he could do.
It wasn't like he could just leave the hunter out here.
Jaune pushed him hard.
He'd always done so, but this time it felt so much worse and Ren wasn't sure how much longer it could go on. It was impossible to ignore the ache in his leg now from that wound Mouk had given him what felt like weeks ago. He'd fought through it at first, but now it couldn't be hidden any longer. He was injured, and the time in the wet and damp had not done much to help him heal.
Were it not for that, he might have been able to keep up with the hunter more effectively, but as it was he continued to stumble and struggle, holding them back as he limped through woodland and over open plains.
Such did not go unnoticed by Jaune. "Quit dragging your heels, we need to make good time and get out of here."
"I-I'm not doing this on purpose," Ren panted, wincing once more as agony flared up his shin. "We need to slow down. I'm going to pull a muscle at this rate."
"Can't keep up, city boy?" Jaune mocked.
Not really, but he didn't want to admit that. With gritted teeth, Ren pushed on, forcing himself harder and pushing what aura he could afford to spare down to his injured leg. Just bear it for now, he told himself. Once Jaune realises we need to fight this thing, we can slow down again.
Such were his thoughts but he'd not banked on Jaune's stubbornness and they walked for hours and hours, far past time when they'd have normally called a break and into the afternoon. Ren drank and ate while he trekked, struggling with a canteen and some ration bar and stuffing them away. He was soon covered in sweat.
It was no better for Jaune, the hunter being experienced but not immune to the fatigue. If anything, his paranoia made it worse, for Ren caught him looking around at every opportunity, often glancing back the way they'd come and touching one hand to his bow.
Of Dogsnatcher, there was no sign. Ren didn't delude himself into thinking that meant it wasn't there or didn't exist, but if so, it wasn't willing to show itself. About the only solace they had was that no traps impeded their path, Jaune's pace being so relentless that not even a Beowolf could circle ahead and ambush them.
They'd stuck to a mostly eastern path judging from the sun, but Ren assumed they would be turning south by south-east soon enough. From the map he'd seen before, that would lead to the most direct route out of the Grimmlands and back into what Jaune called the Wildlands, marking the boundary to frontier territory. Still Grimm-infested, of course, but so much less dangerous than what they currently had to deal with. Still, wouldn't it have been better to travel directly south-east?
In the end, rest didn't come because Jaune stopped them. It came because Ren collapsed. It wasn't something he'd seen coming, but one step over a fallen log proved too much and his leg buckled. He fell with a startled cry, smacking his elbow against the log.
"You idiot!" Jaune hissed. "Do you want it to find us?"
"I-I'm sorry." Except that he wasn't, he really wasn't. This was hardly a life choice he'd made, neither getting lost in this place or suffering an injury for it. "I just need some rest and I'll be good to go again."
"Rest? We don't have time to rest!"
"Well we'll have to make some!" Ren snapped back. The suddenness of it shocked even Jaune, who had perhaps thought him impervious to anger. No such luck and right now with his aura low and leg pulsing with pain, his temper wasn't what it could have been. "If you want to go on ahead, fine – go. I can't follow you even if I wanted to, so you'll have to leave me here."
Jaune reared up. "I'm trying to save your life!"
"And I'm trying to accommodate that – but I cannot go another step. The body has limits."
"You're joking? I'm not even a huntsman and I'm-"
"You slept last night!" Ren yelled, losing what little patience he had. "Maybe you don't remember for all of your insults and calling me useless, but it was me who stood guard. You drove us on the moment you found out about this stupid Beowolf. I've not slept in a day and a half!"
He hated being angry, always had, and he prided himself on his calm control, but damn it if Jaune wasn't good at pushing his buttons. It was the pain too, not to mention the exhaustion, but even so, he couldn't help but feel that had this been Julia or Pyrrha, he wouldn't have been driven to such frustration.
It was all he could do to glare at Jaune from his spot on the floor, one hand clutching his leg and the other on the log he'd tripped over. Sweat dripped into his vision and made everything hazy. He felt nauseous, too. A fine addition to an already sorry state of being.
"Three hours," Jaune finally decided, speaking with the kind of magnanimous tone reserved for a ruler sentencing his servant to death. "You get three hours and that's it. If Dogsnatcher is chasing us-"
"Then he'll catch us either way. Grimm don't give up and you know it. We can't put enough distance between us and him to lose him, and he'll never stop hunting us. We're the only people for a hundred miles or more." Ren panted harshly, but still managed to push himself into a sitting position. "We need to hunt him, Jaune. We can't ignore him."
The hunter scowled and brought a trap out from his bag. "Take your three hours while you can, huntsman. After that, we move again, even if I have to drag you myself."
"Blasted idiot," Ren hissed.
He took his three hours as best he could. It wasn't nearly enough to recovery fully, but Jaune didn't give him a minute longer.
Three hours later, they were moving once more.
"So, what's the plan?"
"Plan?" Jaune asked, looking back briefly.
"Yes, the plan," Ren repeated, firm in both voice and purpose. "We've been travelling east for almost a full day now and you've shown little sign of wanting to stop. You're taking us away from Dogsnatcher's territory, I presume."
"What happens if he follows us?"
"We keep moving and escape."
This again? Ren sighed. "And if he continues to follow us?"
There was no answer.
"You do have a plan for what we do if that happens, don't you? You're not just assuming everything will go okay without a single problem."
The lack of an answer only annoyed him further, but he tried – for the sake of what relationship they might have – to not let that show.
"Did Dogsnatcher take your dog?" he asked, instead.
Jaune's head snapped back. "What?"
"Your dog, you said you had one once, but that you didn't anymore. Did Dogsnatcher take it?"
"No." Jaune paused to hack some vines away from in front of them. "No, it was something – someone – else. I've never met Dogsnatcher in person, or at least not knowingly. I don't hunt out here. Not anymore."
"Anymore? You've been here before?"
Jaune hesitated, though only for a moment. "Of course. Wouldn't be much use guiding us if I hadn't. It's impossible to tell if you've ever met Dogsnatcher, though. I've heard a lot of sounds out in the Grimmlands. Who can tell what's real and what isn't?"
If Jaune's lack of knowledge on Dogsnatcher's ability to remove traps was any indication, they hadn't crossed paths, though Ren supposed that could have been a new development. Maybe it learned it from us by inspecting that first trap of Jaune's. It was a possibility, but it still didn't explain just why the hunter was so averse to hunting it. Ren stumbled on another root, catching himself on a tree with one hand. As he panted for breath, he looked up – and saw a thin sliver of silver before him.
The hunter froze, tensing as he prepared for violent conflict. When it didn't come, he turned with a sigh. "What is it?"
"There's thread in front of me. It's a trap."
He'd only caught sight of it because of luck. Jaune moved over quickly, skirting around to approach from behind Ren so that he wouldn't set it off. The thread was thin, but not quite as thin as what Jaune used for his own, making it a little more visible in the low light. Jaune tested it with a finger, making it twang lightly, but not setting it off.
"Looks like a tripwire of some sort. There isn't enough room for a spike trap, and I doubt a Grimm could actually construct one. Intelligence or not, claws just aren't dextrous enough."
"What is it, then?" Ren panted, grateful for even a moment's pause. Even so, he slipped one of his weapons into his hand, loaded with the dust that Jaune had helped fashion for him before. They weren't high-quality rounds but they would do.
"It looks like a snare. See how it travels up over that branch?" Jaune pointed. "If you stepped on this, it would snap and drag you up."
"Does that mean he's nearby?"
"No telling. It might just be something he put up and left, maybe even weeks ago. But it's possible," he added, watching the trees nervously. "If he truly understands how these work, he might be close, ready to take advantage if we fall for it."
Ren nodded. That was what he'd thought. Without warning, he reached out and slapped a hand down on the thread, triggering it. There was a whistle and a snap as the rope shot left, a noose streaking out of the bushes where they might have stood. Jaune cried out in shock, which was convenient given the intent, and just for the sake of it Ren echoed the cry as convincingly as he could.
"Arghh, no! Help!" He then slammed his Semblance down over himself, concealing his emotions from view.
Jaune gasped and turned on him, but the hunter's complaints were cut off by a sudden rustle to the side and a loud growl as a shape hurtled towards them. He scrambled for his bow, but Ren beat him to it, aiming Stormflower at the bush and squeezing off three shots.
They struck something. There was a cry and a whimper, similar to a dog's and yet impossibly so, for those rounds had been aimed at least four feet up. The whimpers continued, spooked away as Ren fired another shot, pinging off a rock and earning a frantic yelp.
The bushes stopped rustling. The forest became quiet once more – though only for a moment.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Jaune hissed, gripping Ren's arm tight and hauling him around. The hunter was furious.
"Ascertaining the situation," Ren replied. "We now know he's following us and that he doesn't intend to give up. We also know he can be hurt, unless that sound was our imagination." And for the sake of evidence, Ren pushed Jaune's hands off him and stepped into the bushes, only having to go twenty paces or so to find a splatter of blood. Jaune regarded it warily.
"It bleeds," Ren said, checking his remaining ammunition. Eight or more shots remaining in this one, twelve in the other. "I was able to wound it this easily, which means killing it if it did attack wouldn't be that much harder."
Jaune snapped back to reality with an angry growl. "I've told you, the real threat is his traps!"
"And I didn't underestimate those. I asked you exactly what kind of trap it was, and only when I knew it was safe did I set it off – pointedly with neither of us caught in it." There'd been no risk, and some genuine reward. Even if Dogsnatcher hadn't fallen, they'd secured the knowledge he was around and also that he was vulnerable to standard hunter-fare. "In your story, you said that the reason the huntsman couldn't kill him was because he underestimated Dogsnatcher. I'm not doing that, Jaune. If we can find him, we can kill him."
"Is that all you care about, killing Grimm?"
"No, not at all. I couldn't care less normally and I'm hardly suggesting we go out of our way to find him. But he is hunting us, and that's not going to stop until he's dead. Or we are." He put his weapon away and sighed. "I'd rather it not be the latter." If he'd hoped his logic would win Jaune over, he was wrong, but in truth he'd known it wouldn't.
"Don't get cocky, huntsman. It's that kind of thinking that'll get you killed."
"What's your problem, Jaune? You've been like this ever since we got out here."
"Oh, I don't know, maybe it's the fact I'm stuck out here in the Grimmlands with you," Jaune spat. "You ever think of that?"
"You were fine with that back in Mouk's domain. Whatever happened to us having to trust one another? When did that change to only me trusting you, and you refusing to listen to a word I say?" They'd seemed so close to getting along when Mouk fell.
What had gone wrong? Pete? Dogsnatcher? It was impossible to tell.
"Nothing is wrong, city boy. Let's keep moving."
"South-east?" Ren asked.
Not towards the pass, then. Ren's brow furrowed but he followed without complaint; or rather, without verbal complaint. Whatever Jaune's problem was, and whatever had set him off, one thing was becoming increasingly clear.
Jaune was becoming a problem…
It was wet, dark and cold. Rain drizzled down in a way that didn't drench them but left their clothes clinging to their body, damp. The only reason they'd come to a halt was because Jaune stumbled. He couldn't go any further. Ren couldn't either, but he'd reached his limit over two hours ago and had been running on fumes ever since, burning aura instead of stamina.
"We have to rest," Ren called, forced to raise his voice over the rain. "Jaune, you're going to kill us if we continue."
"I…" The hunter scowled. "Make camp."
"Out here!?" Ren gestured to the mostly open terrain around them, which offered little in the way of cover, shelter or much of anything. "Shouldn't we find a cave?"
"It'll expect us to do that. We'd be walking straight into a trap."
"We'll live. If we're lucky, it'll drive Dogsnatcher out of the open. Anywhere he isn't, we want to be."
Ren would have given anything to be somewhere else, too, and preferably without a stubborn companion who refused to see sense. As it was, he lacked the energy to argue and threw off his pack instead. He dug around in it, fishing out some wood. Lighting a fire in this weather would be a nightmare, but at this point he was desperate for a way to dry off.
"No fire," Jaune said.
"You're joking. Tell me that's a poor joke."
"A fire will give us away."
"He's already following us!"
"No fire," he repeated, decision made.
For a moment, Ren considered ignoring him. He also considered knocking Jaune out if he tried to argue, but such thoughts – cathartic as they may have been – served no one. With a snarl he couldn't quite conceal, Ren threw the wood back into his pack and strapped it shut. "Forget Dogsnatcher. We'll freeze to death out here."
"We can wrap up."
Yes, and then there sleeping bags would become damp as well, he didn't bother to say. Jaune knew it well enough and had already made up his mind. Nothing he said would change it. "You might as well take first rest," he spat. "I had mine earlier."
"No fire," Jaune said again.
Ren shot him a glare. "I heard you the first time."
Their meal went in silence, partly due to the soggy and unsatisfying oat bars, but also because Ren couldn't bring himself to speak without anger in his voice, and Jaune was too distracted, scanning the horizon at every moment, his hand occasionally drifting to his bow, and gripping it each time a sound echoed through the area. He was jumpier than Nora.
When he finally accepted that nothing, at least for now, was going to happen, Jaune moved to prepare his bag. "Don't follow any sounds," he warned.
"I heard the legend."
"Not even if it sounds like people."
"I heard the legend," he repeated. "I'm not an idiot. Get some sleep."
Eventually, the hunter complied, although Ren hardly failed to note how long it took Jaune to fall asleep. The hunter was normally out the moment his head hit the pillow, in what he had assume was a skill he'd mastered over years of sleeping in dangerous locations. His panic over the Dogsnatcher seemed to have overwhelmed it.
Ren didn't share it, even as he tried to. An intelligent Grimm was certainly cause for concern, and Dogsnatcher had shown some very cunning intelligence, too, but he was still just a Beowolf, and as susceptible to a blade or bullet as any other – as evidenced by the wounds he'd caused it earlier. It hadn't even been able to kill Pete instantly, but had instead wounded him in an ambush and let him retreat to his cabin to die.
Since that kind of behaviour was unusual for a Grimm, intelligent or not, he had to assume it was because Pete – even ambushed and injured – had scared it away. Predators used hunting techniques that either complimented their skills or made up for shortcomings. Dogsnatcher was already down an arm, so it was possible the techniques it was using on them was because it couldn't hold its own in a normal fight.
Now, if only he could convince his stubborn companion of that. A forlorn hope, he thought. Despite what he claims, the trust we share only goes one way. I'm a burden to him. And in some ways, Ren knew he was. When it came to survival, gathering food or making camp, then yes, he was a burden, but surely Jaune knew if Grimm actually did find them and attack, his skills as a huntsman would hold. Not that it mattered since Jaune seemed determined not to let that happen.
Less than an hour into his watch, the sounds began.
Ren's eyes shot up at the first sound – the bark of a dog. Whether it was Dogsnatcher's favourite or just an instinctual sound was unknown, but this time he didn't fall for it, nor did he make any move to leave the camp.
It had found them again, then…
Or perhaps it had never lost them, despite Jaune's best efforts. Two people tired and injured could hardly hope to outpace a Beowolf, and if you were intelligent enough to lay traps, you were intelligent enough to follow tracks.
But would it be intelligent enough to know better than to attack? Ren's hands fell gently into his lap, expelling Stormflower between his knees, the weapons hidden by his legs. He did his best to appear unaware and unconcerned. The sounds were coming from behind, although they weren't close. Not yet, anyway.
The whimpering grew louder, moved closer.
Ren's muscles tensed.
The bag next to him burst to life with a yell, blanket tossed aside as the hunter within roared to life, nocked an arrow and loosed it into the darkness, in the direction of the sounds. There was a startled yelp followed by rustling grass and leaves as Dogsnatcher fled.
Jaune stood, one knee on the wet grass and his chest rising and falling as he took in great gulps of air. "It was here!?" he gasped. "Dogsnatcher."
"Yes," Ren replied easily.
The hunter rounded on him. "Why didn't you wake me up!?"
"What good would it have done?" he asked in turn, frustrated that the ambush he'd meticulously prepared was now compromised. "You've said before that you won't hunt him, nor let me. What would waking you have achieved if we can't even leave the camp?"
In the distance, the sounds began again, trying to lure them out despite that both had down they wouldn't be fooled. Ren nodded to it.
"See? Whether or not we frighten him off, he's going to stay close to try and draw us out. It doesn't make a difference if you're awake or not. We both still need sleep, and it's my turn to stand watch. Dogsnatcher isn't going to attack. Not now that it knows we're both awake and alert." The previous approach had been probing, after all. Now, it wouldn't dare come near. It would lay traps instead. "Why are you so afraid of it?" he asked.
"I'm not afraid," Jaune snapped, eyes locking to his. "I'm wary."
"You've been wary before without leaping out of bed and firing an arrow randomly into the night."
Jaune huffed and whispered something under his breath, laying his bow beside him. He didn't slip back into the sleeping bag, however, too awake for that now. It was an odd thing, especially given how calm the hunter had always been.
"My chance to sleep, then?" he asked when it was clear no answer to his previous questions would be forthcoming.
"If you can," Jaune snorted.
He'd have no problem, actually. The sleeping bag would be a lot drier than being sat outside, and Jaune's traps – not to mention the hunter himself – would alert him if Dogsnatcher approached. Even then, he doubted the Beowolf would. The constant dog sounds made it clear it still relied on its lure to catch its prey. Ren snuggled into his sleeping bag and pulled it shut over his head, trying to cut the rain off before it hit his face. Exhausted and soaked to the bone, he was asleep moments later.
It was still raining when Jaune woke him up, though the sun had begun to rise, bathing the valley in the light of the early morning. It was no less miserable for it and the moisture in the air had kicked up a thick mist that clung to the landscape.
"Come on," Jaune said. "We'll eat while we move."
Ren sighed and dragged himself out. His leg hurt still, but the muscle pain was mostly fatigue. His injury couldn't really be felt, which likely wasn't a good sign. He stored his bag away methodically and pulled his shoes back on. When he stood, he took his first glance at Jaune and frowned.
"You look terrible."
"Thanks," the hunter snorted, bringing down his traps. "You don't look so hot yourself, city-boy."
"No, I'm serious, Jaune. You look like you're about to pass out. You didn't get enough sleep last night."
"I'll be fine. I know my limits better than you do."
Perhaps, but it was clear from the rings around his eyes, and the pace of his breathing, that he'd reached it. The hunter was on his last legs, and all thanks to the beast that stalked them. "We could still hunt it down and kill it," he said. "You wouldn't have to do anything other than point me in the right direction."
"I'm pointing you that way right now," Jaune said, shrugging his pack onto his back. "We're headed east."
Ren sighed. "If you say so…"
Wet, miserable, and with little progress having been made, the two slogged out once more. Behind them, and seeming to echo all around, canine whimpers and breathing sounded.
Okay, there we go. No note from CF as I can't reach, but one from me, I suppose. This chapter was a bit of a troubling one for me, not only because both our work schedules collided in terrible ways, but because it was a transition with an odd focus I'm not overly sure I succeeded with. Ren and Jaune are at a crossroads of purpose, with Ren believing the correct option is to deal with Dogsnatcher and Jaune wanting to try and escape him.
Who is right? Who is wrong? Who can say.
Well, CF can, but CF isn't here.
Next Chapter: 19th May
P a treon . com (slash) Coeur