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The Evit Merriman Accounts: The Back Hound

I find that my work often takes me away from the familiar, smoke-filled streets of Blackwatch. The truly unfortunate thing about that is not that it takes me away from my home, but that it takes so long to return there. The carriage driver I had hired for such a return journey stopped at a lonely inn on the highway. The establishment's name was "The Lit Lantern". It was a sleepy place, very nearly deserted. Only a few travellers on the road were there, each one keeping to themselves, leading to an almost deathly quiet inside the attached tavern. The only sound breaking the stillness of the night was that of a dog barking and snarling in the distance. Without warning, the door burst open and a man rushed in. He then slammed the door behind him and braced it with his back. He looked around in a blind panic, his eyes only stopping when they got to me, "Witch hunter, come here. I need your help." I reluctantly set down the vodka I was enjoying and went over to him. When I got there, I got a much better look at his features. His visage was deathly pale and covered lightly with perspiration. Additionally, he carried the distinctive odour of alcohol. The man whispered to me, his voice aquiver with fear. "I'm being chased by a monster." That very statement was a serious contender for the most common I ever heard, especially from people in the same state of inebriation as the panicked individual before me. To that end, I calmly asked, "What did this monster look like?" "It was a big black dog. It was huge, with red eyes and wicked teeth." The bartender shouted, "It was a dog you bloody idiot. We get wild ones out here sometimes." The man shook his head vigorously. "No, it weren't a dog. When it was stalking me, it disappeared." I found the man's description curious. It very well could've been his drunken mind playing tricks on him in the dark, but it was equally likely he encountered something far more sinister. "Were you travelling alone, sir?" "Yeah, I was going home after having a few drinks. I'm a hunter and I know these woods. It weren't no dog." I nodded, "You, sir, might be correct. It is quite possible that you encountered a barghest." He grew even more pale, a feat I didn't even think was possible, "A barghest? They're real?" "Real and every bit as unpleasant as you've heard, I'm afraid. Although, it is still entirely possible that what you encountered was merely a very large dog." "Well... what're you going to do?" "I would try to follow the trail during the day. If I found the creature that left it, then it's no more than an ordinary hound. If not, then more specialised methods would be required." The expression on his countenance turned from fear to confusion. "What do you mean you 'would'? "I would if properly compensated. I am a professional, after all." In response to that news, he both looked and sounded disgusted, "How much?" The man was dressed very plainly, telling me that he was not wealthy. To that end, I halved my usual fee, "I won't be going out of my way, so ten grams to investigate, thirty if it's an actual barghest or five if it's turns out to be a dog." "Thirty?! I don't have that much." "I'm sorry, but a barghest is a very dangerous creature. I can't charge any less regardless of the immediacy of the threat." The unfortunate fellow looked positively mortified. His fortunes reversed, however when the bartender spoke up. "Don't worry Corif, I'll take care of that." A look of unbridled relief washed over his face. "You're a saint, friend. Thank you, from the bottom of this wretch's-" "Don't thank me too hard yet, mate. You'll be paying me back you will, every yellow bit of that money." "But you know I don't have the money!" "I know that, but you can help out around here to work it off. Besides, folks walking the roads alone are most of my customers. I can't have this... thing eating them all, it's bad for business." The man still braced against the door seemed to relax a great deal until the door tried to swing open. His terror renewed, he screamed, "It's come for me! Help!" I glanced out the window as calmly as can be to see a pair of travellers trying to come inside. "You can move away from the door now. It's merely someone trying to get in." He was very reluctant to do so, but he did as instructed and let those utterly flummoxed people inside. A few short moments later I explained, "The barghest won't attack you here. For that reason, I would stay here tonight." He nodded gratefully, "I very much agree. In fact, I don't think I'll be leaving this inn at all until that thing is dead." The barman spoke up once again, "So like a normal week, eh mate?" "Shut it, you don't know what my home life's like." "I know exactly what your home life's like, remember?" The two men continued a lively back-and-forth banter, but I had no further reason to be involved. Instead I went to where the carriage driver was seated. "I trust you heard that conversation?" I asked. Without even looking up from his drink, the taciturn man said, "Five grams every day that you want me to stay." "You have yourself a deal, sir." The rest of the evening was quite peaceful, save for a few distant howls. After each one, my latest client grew increasingly nervous. In a rare show of faith, I trusted his judgement. I fully believed that he was beset by a barghest. No experienced hunter, no matter how intoxicated, would be that terrified by a mundane canine. The next morning, I investigated as I said I would. The sheer volume of tracks on the road made that a difficult endeavour. It was the man's tracks that I found first. They were one foot in front of another in the distinct pattern of a man running, and the uneven steps portrayed a panic born of pursuit. It took quite some time to find the trail left by the pursuer, even for an experienced tracker such as myself. The tracks were distinctly canine, and very large. However, they were strangely shallow for the size of the creature that must have made them. That fact told me the hound was either incredibly emaciated or there was something far more sinister at play. I followed the trail made by those tracks all the way through the dense forests nearby. As I made my way further from the road, the smell of rotten meat assaulted my nose. The horrid, putrid smell only grew stronger as I grew closer to the source. Before long, I had come to an earthen wolves' den, but all of its former inhabitants were dead. The unfortunate beasts were torn apart by claw and fang, but not eaten, not even by scavengers. Worse yet, I couldn't find the thing that perpetrated such a horrifying slaughter. All signs pointed to a preternatural beast that quite literally doesn't exist in the daylight. Armed with that information, I returned to the inn. It was only midday and my client had already started drinking. That did not bode well for what I had to say. "I have news." "Well, out with it, man! Am I safe now, or what?" "Unfortunately not. The creature is, in fact, a barghest and one with an especially nasty disposition at that." The man finished off the rest of his drink at an alarming rate. As soon as his cup was empty, he shouted, "Another!" Right after the innkeeper filled his cup, I put my hand over the top of it. "I would slow down if I were you. I'll still need your help, and you're not going to like it." "Do I have to be sober?" "Not entirely, but the ability to run would be immensely helpful to us both." In response to that his attention, most of which seemed to be on the bar and its contents, now turned entirely to me. He looked appropriately afraid, "Go on..." "You see, the barghest has chosen you as its next victim. As such, it will stalk you until you are dead or until it tastes the blood of another. Unfortunately for us both, that means I can't draw it out or find it without you." Simultaneously fortunately and unfortunately, the man understood exactly what I was trying to say, "You want to use me as bait?!" I was understandably hesitant. That is, after all, not something one wants to tell another under any circumstances. "Yes, but you must understand I cannot find it any other way. Don't worry, I've done this many times and never lost a client." He snatched his cup out from under my hand, "No way. I'm not letting you use me as bait." In response, I donned my hat and said, "Well then, good bye and good luck. I would bid you long life but that seems unlikely." I'd almost made it out the door when he said, "Wait... so you were serious when you said there was no other way." "Terribly. The only other way would be to wait for you to die and try this very same tactic with the beast's next victim. Rest assured, I don't want that to happen any more than you do." "Alright then, what would I be doing?" "I simply need you to walk down the road. The rest will be handled by me and the beast, itself." The man took a very large gulp of his drink, "Like a worm on a bloody hook. I can't wait." "I understand your reluctance, I would feel much the same way in your position. Don't worry, I will make sure I take as much of the risk upon myself as possible." I turned my attention to the establishment's proprietor, "Do you have any actual silverware here?" He let out a loud, hearty laugh, "I admire your optimism, mate. If I ever had any real silver around here, it would end up 'misplaced' within a week." "I was afraid you'd say that." I took off my silver ring and handed it to the beleaguered hunter. "If the beast gets too close, press this against its skin. It will burn it, driving it back." As certain as I was about the creature's reaction to silver, the sheer ferocity of that individual made me doubt that it would truly be enough to drive it away. My client seemed to share those doubts, "I'm going to drive this monster away with a pinkie ring I can't even wear? Why don't you give me that dagger?" "I'm planning to intercept the beast before it can even get to you. At such close quarters, I am likely to need it, myself." He sneered but offered no further argument. I replaced the cylinder of my revolver with one that contained silver ammunition, and then there was nothing more to do than wait until nightfall. During that time, I had the unenviable task of regulating my employer's consumption of alcohol. He was quite drunk when the hour came, but I was confident he would be able to do whatever he needed to survive. "It's time. Are you ready?" "No, I'm bloody well not!" he said, before hesitantly continuing. "But I suppose we should get it done." We stepped outside, greeted by the brisk night air. I turned to my client, whom fear seemed to render quite sober, "I will need you to walk down the road, as if it were any other night. I will be staying out of sight, but I will never be that far away. Do you understand?" "I understand." After that affirmation, a lone howl sounded from the night, overtaking the chorus of crickets. My charge jumped so much I thought he had left his shoes behind. "I'm... having second thoughts about this..." he said. "Quite frankly, I would be deeply worried if you were not. Still, it's imperative for your survival that you continue." He only nodded hesitantly and looked down the foreboding highway for a short while. I had taken the time to hide in the nearby shrubbery. He turned back to where I was just standing and jumped once again when he saw that I wasn't there. He spent the next several seconds looking around for me, "Uh... sir? Are you there...?" I hissed my response from my hiding place, "Yes! Now keep quiet and get moving." He nodded again and quite visibly swallowed his fear. After some more hesitation, he took a step, then another. When he got to walking, his gait was unnaturally tense. I was very thankful the barghest wasn't intelligent enough to notice the obvious terror in the man's steps. At the pace he had set, it wasn't hard to follow, nor was it hard to keep out of sight in the ample cover provided by the dense forest. My employer had almost started to relax when the creature finally showed itself. It was a prime example of its kind, a great black dog, similar to a mastiff, but coal-black and unnaturally large. Its red eyes showed a malice not seen in more natural canines. Its teeth were bared as the monstrous thing let out a low growl. The monster's prey took a few tentative steps back and let out a vain plea, "Hey there... who's a good puppy...?" The beast ignored the unfortunate man's attempt to placate it. It lunged at him, snarling. I only had a few moments to react, but that was enough. I pushed my employer to the ground and stood in his place. Sadly, I didn't have enough time to aim at the barghest before it had taken me to the ground. I reflexively fired a single shot as I fell with the monstrous hound on top of me. The creature's powerful jaws clamped down on my arm, and it shook its head violently, sending terrible pain shooting its way through my entire being. I hardly even noticed that the hound's unnatural bulk caused its claws to dig into the flesh of my chest. While the monster tore through me, I fought to draw my silver dagger with my free hand. After an incredible struggle, I managed to get the weapon in my hand and stab the beast again and again in the side. Upon feeling the burn of the silver, the barghest released its grip on my arm and ran into the forest, whimpering in pain. Now free of the immediate threat of death, I took a moment or two to bask in the relief of my own survival. Before long, I struggled to my feet and looked around for my client. As I expected, he was nowhere in sight. I reached the inevitable conclusion that he ran off when the fight began. I made my way back the way I came, the direction I was quite certain he went. When I walked into the inn, I saw the hunter who hired me, the establishment's owner, and a matronly woman I'd seen here and there around the place. As soon as I walked in, the beleaguered hunter, Corif, asked excitedly, "Is that it? Is it gone?" "No, it escaped." The man's expression turned around immediately, "So it's still out there, coming after me?" "Still out there, yes. Coming after you, no. Once it tasted my blood, I became its prey, so I'll be having my ring back." "Of course." As he was handing it back he asked, "So now it's your life in danger?" I tried to maintain my composure, but a small smirk crossed my lips in spite of myself. "That's a common occurrence, I'm afraid. It's something of an occupational hazard." While my client only nodded, the innkeeper spoke up, "Well you are in some amount of luck, mate. My wife's the best I've ever seen with a needle and thread. She'll get you fixed up." When she was mentioned, the woman nodded, "I'm happy to do it. Now, off with the shirt, young man." As I was gingerly doffing my clothing, being especially careful with my mangled arm, I said, "Your efforts are appreciated, madam." The woman scoffed, "I'm no 'madam'. That's a title for fancy ladies in big houses who don't do their own work." It was at that moment when I finished removing my clothes. In stunned silence, the trio studied my numerous scars. It was Corif that spoke up first, "That must be one dangerous job you have. What's that one from?" he asked indicating a very dramatic slash across my torso." "My first werewolf. That contract nearly claimed my life, but his head and claws are hanging on my shop wall." The innkeeper's wife had already long since moved on to checking my recent injuries. Her focus was so singular that she sounded distant as she spoke, "Well, it's good you're here to help us, sir witch hunter." "I'm no knight in shining armour. In truth, I'm far more akin to an exterminator." She didn't reply. Instead she only continued looking at my wounds. A few moments later, she let me know what she found, "The claw marks on your chest aren't bad, they'll heal on their own. The arm will need stitches, but you'll be right as rain in no time." "My wounds will, unfortunately not 'heal on their own', not until I kill the barghest." The bartender looked surprized to hear that, "Really? You'd just be hurt forever?" "Correct?" He shook his head in response, "It's always something with magic." I chuckled out loud, "You, my friend, have no idea. I could very well hang that up below my sign." By that time, the innkeeper's wife was stitching me up. It was a sensation whose discomforts I had long since grown accustomed to. During that time, my client asked, "Are you going back out there tonight?" "No. I left the beast with its own wounds to lick. The hunt continues tomorrow, and it will be made all the easier by the simple fact that my prey will also be hunting me." The inn's owner laughed out loud. "You, my friend, are mad. That doesn't make it any easier." "Why, of course it does. It virtually guarantees that one party will be successful." The woman spoke up, "You're done. Those tooth marks are as fixed as I can make them." "Thank you. Now, I believe it's time I got some rest. I bid you all a good night." I stood up and tried to take my clothes, but the proprietor's wife said, "Leave them. I'll take care of them tomorrow." Taken aback, I said, "Thank you once again." "Nonsense. You're fighting a monster in the woods around my home, a little mending and laundering is the least I can do." With a courteous nod, I retired to my room. My restfulness was diminished somewhat by the constant pain of my injuries. Even tended as they were, it still felt as though the barghest's jaws were locked around my arm. Eventually, however, sleep did find me. As with most nights, I dreamt of the many horrid creatures I had already fought. I am well aware that to most such visions are the stuff of nightmares, but I was already quite numb to such things. The next day I kept my activities light in preparation for the exertions that I had to face after the sun had set. I spent the hours of waiting studying The Lit Lantern's clientele. Most who walked through the doors seemed to be merchants, and there were as many that were familiar with the proprietor as those that were not. I also noticed that the hunter, Corif, was conspicuously absent. I determined that he had most likely hidden himself away to prepare for the possibility that I would not succeed. Unfortunately, the mounting anticipation made it quite impossible for that time to be in any way relaxing. After several very long hours, night fell and I removed myself from the corner that had become my haunt. The innkeeper asked, "You going out to fight the beast, mate?" "Of course. I very much doubt you'd allow me to stay here forever." "You are very much correct. Be careful, witch hunter." "I always am." Then, without another word I donned my hat and walked out the door. There was a chill in the air that served as a clear sign that summer was coming to an end. The night air was filled with the sort of light fog that was common in Dakania, shining under a gibbous moon. With my firearm still loaded with the all-important silver bullets, I strode down the road. Even though I was nowhere near as frightened as my client, my heart was beating a great deal faster than normal. I was looking very intently at the underbrush for signs of movement when a howl pierced the air. The sound came from behind me, so I whirled around aiming my revolver in that direction. At that moment the wind gusted, shaking branches and rustling leaves. The movement and sound were somehow all the more oppressive in the darkness. I was watching the foliage so closely that no leaf or blade of grass escaped my sight, but I saw no sign of the beast. From behind me, I heard the snap of a twig. I whirled around again and caught sight of the barghest's baleful red orbs and still-bloody maw right before it faded out of sight. I spent the next few of my considerably shortened heartbeats searching frantically for a sign of the now-invisible creature. "I hate these bloody things," I said under my breath. For a mere blink of an eye, the fog seemed to creep across the ground, seemingly moving of its own accord. I fired in that direction, but to my dismay what I witnessed was a mere trick of the wind. During the next few moments the only sounds I heard were the gentle rustling of the leaves and my own ragged breaths. There were no thoughts running through my mind that night. I didn't consider my own mortality or fixate on the ferocity of my bestial opponent. There was only the singular focus of one who had faced death on innumerable occasions and prevailed with the determination to prevail once again. Then, breaking the illusion of peace, I heard the breaking of a branch followed by the subtle sounds of canine paws hitting the ground at a rapid pace. I swung my weapon around and fired. With a pained yelp, the beast returned to visibility and fell mere inches from my feet. When it moved again, I fired two more shots into it and waited, only for it to remain still with its bloodstained muzzle frozen into a now-permanent snarl. With my quarry dead, I took several moments to enjoy the palpable relief of victory. Sadly, that moment couldn't last longer as the clouds were quite close to overtaking the moon, depriving me of the little light I enjoyed. As usual, it wasn't pleasant bringing the carcass back to the inn. It was both quite large and quite heavy, but I was able to carry it on my shoulders all that way. I became keenly aware of the seemingly immense distance I travelled that night. Still, it was worth it as it was always my policy to provide proof the contract had been complete. When I finally reached The Lit Lantern, I dropped the barghest's remains on the ground outside and walked into the inn with sweat running down my face. "You look like you've seen better days, witch hunter," the owner said. "Is the beast dead?" I nodded and took several seconds to catch my breath. "That it is. The remains are outside if you want to see." The man moved with such speed and enthusiasm that I would not have been surprized if he had leapt over the bar. When we were both looking at the corpse, he said, "I don't know what's more impressive, mate: that you killed that creature, or that you were able to carry it. That thing's almost as big as you are." "It was not an easy task, I assure you." "Don't think I forgot about your payment." The innkeeper handed me a pouch of coins, "Earned every coin you did." "Thank you, and it was nice doing business with you, sir. Now, I believe I've also earned a good night's sleep. Have a pleasant night." Without waiting for a response, I went inside for my much-needed respite. The very next morning I left as I always do to go home to Blackwatch where the next contract surely awaited me.

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