Orion the Hunter wore old army boots, forest-camo combat trousers, a number of hunting knives and no shirt. He had two full quivers at his back and a yew longbow in his hand. His four companions, with their rifles, deerstalkers and hunting jackets, embarrassed, were trying not to look at his bare chest and well-defined musculature. On his torso a thin sheen of sweat glistened in the rising light.
The party was waiting at the head of a shallow ravine. Orion was the only tracker among them and this was the spot he had chosen. This, he claimed, was the path their prey took. Prey was hard to come by these days, but he had not let them down yet, so they waited.
In the hunter’s belt were set three gems. They must have been gems for the way they caught the light, but anyone looking close enough would swear they were eyes and anyone with the experience would swear one was a wolf’s, one a lion’s and the last a bear’s. Although not many people gained that kind of experience and lived to tell of it.
Next to Orion stood Randy Horwood. Before the Collapse Randy had been a mayor in these parts, and he still led the community where Orion didn’t take an interest, which was just about every facet but the hunting and the women. When the Hunter chose to impose his leadership though, people obeyed.
Randy fingered the scar at his throat. His radio crackled.
“Randy, this’s Gabriel, c’min Randy.”
Mobile phones had been one of the first things they lost.
“Go ahead, Gabriel.”
“I’ssa biggun, Randy. Big as all hell.”
“What is it, Gabe?”
“I’ssa bear, Randy, jus’ like what mister Orion said. A right big feckin’ bear.”
“How long till he gets here, Gabe?”
“I- Shit. Where d’e go? He were just there. I wes only scratching ma balls a damn moment.”
“We can still hear you, Gabe.”
The radio was silent.
“Gabriel? You there?”
Silence. The men looked at Orion. There was an intensity to him they had never felt before, a hard anticipation. They had never seen him smile, and he wasn’t smiling now, but it looked like he might and it scared the hell out of them.
The men looked at each other, nervous, until Randy broke the silence.
Orion never said more words than necessary; sometimes less. His accent was thick and certainly not American, though none of the others could have identified it. None of them had travelled far, even back in the days you could.
They waited. The sun swam lazily overhead.
Randy lifted his radio but Orion put his large hand over the ex-mayor’s, halting him. It seemed to Randy that every particle of the hunter’s being was alert, testing the forest, searching for the bear. Orion left his hand there for just long enough that Randy began to feel uncomfortable, then he clicked the radio off with a warning glance and returned his full attention to the trees and the ravine.
The other three huntsmen, Brad, Willum and Billy Bob, died without warning, in a sick, crunching, slurping splatter of blood and chunks.
Randy’s startled cry ended in a wheeze of breath and crack of ribs as the bear knocked him down flat and stood on his chest. Randy struggled, suffocating, as the bear stood there staring at Orion.
The ex-mayor jerked and went still.
“Come for my other eye?”
The bear, still on all fours, loomed over Orion; Orion who was a giant among men. It had black fur that seemed to sparkle like a blanket of stars where the dappled sunlight caught it; fur that was tangled and wild and made the creature seem all the more fearsome. Where its right eye should have been was a gaping hole so dark and deep it felt prehistoric, as if looking closely enough you might see a tiny fire, and tiny people daubing paint on the walls: pictures of crude stick people with spears and mammoths and bison... and bears.
The bear’s voice was deep and unhurried, with rough edges like continents dragging against each other.
“The world is ending, Orion, why do you hunt my people, why do you provoke me?”
“It is what I do, and we have unfinished business.”
“You never could let things lie. Civilisations ago and continents away and still you can’t get over it. I beat you, Orion.”
“There were no rules. It can’t be cheating if there are no rules. The humans have destroyed everything, Orion, they have ripped the stars from the sky and cracked the Earth. Now is the time for mourning, not violence.”
“Now there is only time for violence.”
“You haven’t changed. You’re actually enjoying being back here, amongst them, aren’t you? It won’t last. Everything is coming apart.”
Orion drew his biggest knife. Its eleven inch blade gleamed.
“This knife is close to perfection. The blade was made by laminating different steels, each with their own properties, making it unbreakable, perfectly weighted and permanently sharp. We never had knives like this in the old days, in the old country. Do you think the humans looked at everything they had made and despaired that they could go no further?”
“I have never heard you so verbose. The world must truly be ending. Ha. And no, I don’t believe they destroyed themselves through existential angst. They have always been this way, always been self-destructive, they’ve just been getting better at it.”
“You may be right.”
“I may be right?”
“Either way, there is business I would have settled.”
Orion shifted into a fighting stance, the knife restless in his hand.
The bear grumbled a low sigh.
“Very well, Orion. But it is not how I would have chosen to spend my last days: with your death on my conscience.”
The Hunter lunged.