Snowbeasts are the shadow of man cast onto shattered ice. The Horen call them svelldrunger, and give them a place in many of their legends. Their bones stalk the Sunken Forest in the form of Horen blades. Horen babies are swaddled in their fur. Their teeth and claws hang from the necks of Horen hunters. The scars they leave on the faces of warriors are their own sort of trophy.
They lumber from kill to kill, scars lining their own faces. Hardened by the cold, their bones are one of the Horen’s most valuable commodities, but those who hunt them must be careful not to be hunted themselves. Snowbeasts prefer human flesh above all other prey. They will risk injury, even death, for just one chance to dig in their claws. Some say it is not the taste of human flesh they crave, but the taste of vengeance.
There was frost on the svelldrunger’s fur. It clung to his face, to his paws. His breath formed hazy clouds in the air in front of him as he crashed across the ice and snow, hunting. Urok had caught the scent of blood in the wintry air. He paused only to rear back on his hind legs and sniff the air. He couldn’t see the humans against the harsh glare of the sun reflecting off great sheets of ice as polished as mirrors, but he knew they were near. A boy and a woman, mother and son. The boy was bleeding. The mother was carrying the boy across the ice.
Urok bellowed, and his voice carried across the wind, twisting and dissolving into an eerie moan, indiscernible from the sound of the wind. The humans would be unable to tell where the sound had come from, but they would know that he was near. His roar was rewarded with the stronger scent of blood, as the boy’s pulse quickened. He crashed down to all fours once more, and trampled across the ice in pursuit of his prey.
As he reached the crest of a mountainous snowbank, even against the pungent stench of blood and pus from the boy’s wound, Urok could smell them. He smelled their sweat, their fur-clad bodies, their sticks of meat sizzling over a bonfire. His prey disappeared amongst the dozens, but they were no safer here than they had been out in the cold with the boy’s wound slowly becoming infected. Urok stalked closer, sniffing the air to guess at the number of huddled human bodies around the fires. He crept down the side of the hill, slow and methodical, out of sight despite his bulk.
He waited, listening to the sounds of their voices, until the sun’s light finally gave way to moonlight, and the camp began to quiet. When at last he pounced upon his prey, his attack was sudden and ferocious. It began with a deafening roar, the slash of claws, and the gnashing of fangs. He went for the warriors first. The warrior closest to him attacked without fear, thrusting a spear into his hide. He snarled, bearing his teeth, and the warrior hesitated. He tore the human’s throat into ribbons, even as another spear dug into his back.
Blood spattered upon the snow, a stark contrast of white and red that matched that of the snowbeast’s fur. Only a few warriors had stood against him, and they’d been quick to meet their end at the hand of his claws. Aside from the injured boy and his mother, only children and the elderly remained. Some had simply fled at the sight of him, shouting “Svelldrunger!” and stumbling in their panic to get away. The bonfire had died to a dull roar, with no one to stoke the flames and the cold wind spitting snow and ice into the fire. Still, the occasional sling-stone bounced off Urok’s hide, but when he turned his gaze on the boy or woman who’d thrown it, they would shrink back and fall silent.
He stalked forward, and settled around one of the Horen warriors he’d felled. Still keeping his eyes on the remaining Horen, as if daring them to challenge him, he began to tear flesh from the man’s body with his teeth, staining his teeth with blood. At last, one of them stepped forward, spear in hand, to confront him. He recognized her scent. This was the mother of the injured boy.
She let loose a savage battle-cry, and Urok answered her with his own.
Tears lined my eyes, forming crystals of ice around my eyelashes, as I watched the beast drag my mother away in his teeth. Her spear was in pieces, one of them still lodged in the svelldrunger’s back. I stepped forward to pick up one of the shattered pieces, and cried out as an agonizing pain in my leg caused me to stumble. The svelldrunger regarded me with quiet disinterest, no more disturbed by my outburst than a man by the presence of a fly.
“Urok,” I named the beast in my Horen tongue, a word that means monster.
Then I watched, helpless, as a trail of blood streaked across the snow. A moment later, a gust of wind had hidden the blood beneath a layer of snow.
The svelldrunger, and my mother, were gone.