Isolate the Beast

Kelby Campgrounds 

 North Glenn. Bear territory, as best as she could figure - the tingle of claimed land that pricked the back of her mind kept her on her best behavior, and the scent of something distinctly ursine enforced that. Bears were large creatures - Werebears were nothing less than monstrosities and she had no desire to anger one in any way.

 As such, she hiked through the woods, mostly impervious to the mid-day chill, enjoying a day off from work without allowing a lapse in physical activity. She marched through the ferns and fallen pine needs just off the trail, using a large, mossy stick to jab at the path before her in case she should be unfortunate enough to come across some old steel trap. Which she would probably not have to worry about if she just stayed on the established footpath, but whatever.

 There would be no rusty steel trap to strike, but there would be an equally unwelcome contender. She smelled the creature long before she saw it, but failed to heed the warning her senses gave her, and wound up crossing paths with a badger. Ingrid knew nothing about badgers beyond the one in front of her, and that was simply that it radiated fear and was immediately ready to fight.

 The claws on its front paws, while not exactly razor sharp, were dauntingly long and powerful enough to rip the fabric of her leggings as it leapt at her. Ingrid was was enough to dance away from it and avoid being injured beyond the scratches in her thigh, but her beast still rushed to the surface, indignant and snarling, lighting her eyes up and ready to rip the little varmint to absolute shreds. But shifting on bear territory could have some serious repercussions, so she needed to take care of this quickly.

 So, Ingrid did just that - by kicking the badger, as hard as she could, and sending it tumbling with a shriek several yards away from her.

Bears were very much on his mind as well, and he tracked them not as hunter, but as warden. His footfalls were light, and his attention cast upward, seeking out the pale white stalks of birch amidst the pine. It didn’t take long to find what he was looking for: the large fruits of hoof fungus growing on the white wood. The fungus draws him closer, and the trees in this area seem to have an abundance of them. A flurry of bees around one of the fruits catches his eye, and when he checks closer he can see the mark of claws beneath the body of the fungus. Nearby too was the hive the bees called home, and he feels confirmation in the wisdom of Nature and her ecosystems. The bears marked the trees, the fungus grew in the claw-rend wood, the bees used the mushroom for their anti-viral benefits, and the bears feasted on the honey.

He was on the right track. Traveling from birch to birch, his eyes swept up and down, and near a fresh scratching of birch there was a track in the mud. He crouched and lightly brushed the leaves away to inspect the print further, for at first he could not believe his eyes. The paw making the track would have to be massive, and his first thought was it was a grizzly, but further examination proved otherwise. The lengths of the toes were all wrong, and the claws short and hooked. A black bear had made the impression, but it was mammoth specimen. The thought of encountering the beast in these woods made him shiver with anticipation.

He hadn’t picked up any bear tags this season, but hopefully whichever hunter ran into this brute in the woods had good aim.

A burst of birds taking flight from the overhead boughs cast a ripple of shadows over his face, and the strobe of light forced his attention upward. Luke slowly straightened up, his heart increasing in tempo as his fingers squeezed around the stock of his Springfield. He watched the trajectory of the birds and traced it back to where they had been fleeing, and that was the direction where he stalked. The butt of the rifle was lifted beneath his arm, and the muzzle pointed downward as he trekked.

It wasn’t very long until he came upon the source of the disturbance. The flash of black fur in the brush made his breath catch, but he quickly realized that the beast was too small to be the bear he feared. With the climax ruined, it was primarily curiosity that guided him further forward to put the scene more clearly in view.

At the bottom of the slope where he was raged a badger. The animal was clearly agitated with its open mouth salivating and dark hair standing on end. Its hind legs kicked at the muskeg underfoot in a territorial display, and its bristled tail lashed violently to and fro. When he looked up he expected to see another badger competing for this area’s honey resource, but to his shock (and soon dismay) it was a woman. She had the look of awe that only adrenaline could bestow, and beneath her features he noted the torn, bloodied state of her clothing. It didn’t take long to realize those were claw marks on her legs, and not the result of a clumsy fall.

He looked back to the posturing badger once more, which seemed unsure whether it should flee or fight, but the fact that it delayed in its decision made Luke’s heart sink. It was very usual for an animal like that to attack a human, unless she had provoked it intentionally. That was a possibility, but more frightening was the idea that the creature was mad and rabid. In fear of the worst, he raised his rifle and before the little beast could charge again, he pressed his finger against the trigger and the .30-06 leaped from the barrel of the gun and pierced through the center of the badger. It rose up on its hind legs only to spin and collapse onto its back, struggling for seconds before stilling in the muskeg.

He released the breath he'd confined in his chest, and risked his gaze upward to the woman to see her response.

 Ingrid was no vegan, no sucker for animals of any variety though she may have been as a child - still, she had no great desire to kill this creature. She hoped it would accept its defeat, would know its place as the weaker animal here and leave her be, but still she grasped her makeshift walking stick with every intention of using it as a beating weapon if it came in for another attack. Distantly, she was aware of the approach of another - markedly human - but her attention remained on the badger. It seemed they were at a standoff.

 That was until someone fired a round. It was so unexpected that it absolutely scared the shit out of her, and Ingrid screamed in fury and terror. It was a short, but loud sound, and she all but scrambled away from the bloodied badger as it danced in the air. Her eyes were a brilliant shade of gold as her heart pounded against her ribs, seemingly intent on banging its way clean out of her torso. Much like the lionness in her head was eager to take the wheel and get them out of here.

 Having a gun fired in her general direction did not exactly generate good memories. It was a struggle to keep a tight lid on her beast as a panic attack threatened to take a hold of her, and she glared up at the man on the crest of the slope above her as she clutched her chest. Her fingers dug into her sweater as if she might be able to reach in and squeeze her own heart to stillness. "What the fuck!" she yelled at him finally, teeth bared as she fought against the cramping of her muscles that signaled the beginning of a very physical battle with a metaphysical beast. Maybe she did not actually have room to be angry with the stranger, but... she was anyway.

There was no mistaking her response, but it’s still met with his own incredulity. The rifle is laid neutrally across his arms, cradled there like the precious equipment it was, and he huffed back at her. “You’re welcome,” he replied pointedly. That was, his intention was only to protect her from getting tore up by a frenzied badger.

Yet even this little into hindsight it’s easy for him to consider that he could have spent a little bit more time making a decision. He could have taken a whack at the badger with his rifle stock, or tried to scare it away with a warning shot. None of these things had come to mind until her outrage drew light to the finality of the action. He wouldn’t say anything about it, only bite his tongue and tried to shake it off.

Luke stepped over to the twitching carcass on the ground and used the tip of his boot to turn its head and be sure there were no longer puffs of hot breath from its jaws. Once satisfied, his sheepish features returned to face the livid woman, “You okay?” She didn’t look any worse for wear, but God forbid he make presumptions this day and age.

 She was welcome! Ingrid squeezed her eyes shut, attempting to keep her temper under control. A sharp retort sounded nice, but would probably only further her frustrations. Lion first. Man later.

 He was stepping down the slope, coming closer, and the woman turned away from him. What were the odds of her killing someone on bear turf right now? Pretty high, but she was determined to defy them. She took a few deep breaths, and the simple disruption of her hyperventilating seemed to be a step in the right direction. The tension on her bones eased away from what definitely felt like the breaking point, but even as the human spoke, she was still grappling with that inner force. Down, bitch.

 It was not until she was certain that she was back in control that she would face the man again, turning slowly to apprehend him with weary blue eyes. Part of her would have liked to strike him with the stick in her hand. The lioness would have liked to eat him. Ingrid did neither of these things. "Just peachy, my dear knight in shining armor," she assured him with clear sarcasm. "I appreciate your intentions, but I had the situation under control."

When she turned her head his consternation grew in a different direction. He craned his head and squinted at the side of hers in an attempt to catch a glimpse of her face. When he couldn’t find the outline of her lips he tried to adjust his perspective by walking closer and at an angle rather than directly at her.

He watched the rest of her instead, noting the tension in her body coupled with the clear avoidance of her attention. It’s the same way an animal moves when trying to cope with a threat, and what more were they than complicated, human animals? So he didn’t directly approach, he only circled to the side and was grateful when she exhaled and lifted her visage toward him again.

Then he could see her more clearly. She had strong but feminine features, and looked to him like a Nordic spirit, full of fury with the icy breeze fluttering her blonde hair across her lips. Under control…? He glanced down at the bloodied tears in her leggings.

He might not have been a smart man, but he wasn’t stupid; he didn’t push it, just apologized, “It's cool: I’m with Fish and Game.” Luke pulled at the front of his coat after freeing one hand from the rifle. The coat opened and he fished out the leather wallet containing his identification. She couldn’t read it from this distance most likely, but his picture was there and so was an official-looking stamp.

The wallet is thus stowed where he’d retrieved it; “You looked like you might be in trouble.”

 The beast simmered beneath her skin, only far away enough to keep the animalistic color from her eyes. It paced in her head, attempting to asses the threat; while he might be a human, he did have a gun, and that was really the root of this drama, wasn’t it? She narrowed her eyes at him as he proclaimed his affiliation with the state game warden, glancing at the identification he flashed. Technically a police officer - an agent of law enforcement to enough of a degree that most people would rather not be disrespectful. Ingrid lacked this fear.

 "And you thought friendly fire would be helpful," she sighed, looking down at the scratches in her leg and shrugging the pack off of her back. She knelt down and opened the bag, digging around for the small first aid kit she kept handy. It was unnecessary - the bestial curse she carried would stave off any infection the badger’s claws could have hoped to inflict, but she wiped the cuts with antiseptic anyway. Her eyes travelled to the little creature’s carcass, the small pool of blood that had begun to build up beneath its cooling body.

 The game warden could not understand that the badger had come for her so viciously because of what she was; she realized this very suddenly. Perhaps it was unusual for badgers to treat humans with such hostility - maybe he did recognize its aggression as unusual. Maybe he had thought it to be rabid. Maybe she was being too harsh on the man.

Then it was his turn to bristle. The words friendly fire made his skin tighten as the muscles beneath tensed. The molars of his jaw ground together like lovers, but the ton of his voice hadn’t changed, only the hiss of air as the words were forced through his teeth. “Ma’am, I never miss.” Not when it mattered anyway, and saving pretty blonde ladies from psychotic mustelids was one of those situations where it counted.

She was already tending to her own wounds, which was ridiculous really. She was hurt after all, and he was unscathed, willing and ready to help. Women and their damn strong independence. What was wrong with a little chivalry anyway? When he was a boy, he’d been told that was just being polite. Not that he gave a damn then, but the corps had beaten the instinct in where his father had failed: he started after her with a huff and a roll of his eyes.

“Let me give you a hand: it’s the least you could do,” he chided on the verge of exasperation. “Then we can get you to a medic.” There was nothing beneath the veneer of annoyance to easily take him seriously on it. His facial expression denied any sincerity in what he said, instead presenting a visage of concern and focus, as well as a flickering attention between the cuts on her legs and the pink blush of her lips.

She was standing and hardly on the brink of toppling over, so he didn’t grab to support her. Instead he slung the pack off his back and around to the front of him on one shoulder. From it he withdrew a large thermos cup with a small tin cup affixed to one end. He unscrewed it then the lid beneath to release a burst of steam and aroma of hot grounds; coffee in this situation was about as important as cleansing her wounds. A few ounces of hot coffee was poured into the tin and extended to her in offering before getting down to the business of patching her up.

 Oh, he never missed. Of course not. Typical man. Ingrid kept this particular patch of sass to herself as she began to tend to her cuts. The bleeding had already stopped, this she noticed as she wiped at the split skin; thanks, lycanthropy. She sighed to herself, crumpling up the little wipe and moving to stick it back in her bag. She paused as the man began to speak, and at first she was furious - the least she could do? She owed him nothing. But as Ingrid looked up, staring daggers, it struck her that he was potentially being sarcastic. The woman decided to leave it be - let him try to force her to a medic, if he was being serious. He'd be in for a surprise.

 Medic. That was not a particularly civilian term. Ingrid tilted her head at the ranger, lifting a hand in a silent refusal of the extended coffee.

 "You're not touching me," she warned him crisply as she zipped up her pack, watching him beginning to dig into his own. More than anything, she didn't need him to end up being too observant and noticing the quick healing going on here. "Are you military?" The question might have come a bit abruptly, but she was shameless in her curiosity.

He rolled his eyes, but distinctly did not touch her. She could be insufferable and bleed on the spotty snow if she wanted, even though his flickering attention from her mouth to legs had him growing quizzical over her condition. He had to peer harder than he thought to note the damage, making him wonder if she somehow got lucky. Those leggings didn’t look like they were going to do shit against badger claws, and no doubt that had to hurt like a bitch, but for all his exasperation she did look and act fine.

She started to question him, and that forced his attention away and tabled his confusion for the moment. “Retired, Marines,” came his crisp reply. Giving up for the moment on examining her, Luke straightened out and extended the coffee in his hand after her. One thing he already knew for sure was this was one tough lady, and he could recognize that quickly enough not to coddle and get to the important things, like something warm to drink and more important things to talk about.

“You?” His head cocked to the side as he looked her in the eye for a moment. At this stage he wouldn’t be surprised, not with her picking it out of him and now that he’s closer he can see this chick looks kind of tough.

 Marines, huh. Ingrid's brow rose slightly, head nodding in acknowledgment. Not that jarheads were all one great monolith, but it made her feel like she could pin down what kind of person he might be for all that. Persistent, undoubtedly, as he made to offer her the little cup of coffee again when she had already made a gesture to deny it. Maybe that had not been clear enough. "No thank you," she said simply, with less frost in her words now. As her frustration over the moment ebbed away, it was easier to not be rude as she stood her ground.

 "Army," she informed the man as she lifted her bag again, threading her arms through the straps and lowering it against her back. She added quickly, "Well, retired, also." Not entirely true, but a good enough term to suggest she was no longer working in the armed forces.

She firmed up her decline, and Luke shrugged. She was a big girl, picking fights with wildlife (and losing, arguably) so he lifted to offered cup to his own lips and took a sip. Some people knew the value of a hot cup of coffee.

When the announcement of her service came his eyebrows rose in an attempt to look impressed. “Neat,” he spoke into his tin cup. It wasn’t that he looked down on it, he just didn’t know what to make of it in that moment. War seemed an eternity away from here.

At the very least it seemed to give him consent to handle her less delicately as he redirected the topic to the urgent matter, “You know I’m going to have to cut off its head for rabies testing, and file a lot of paperwork. The hell happened?” He set the tin mug down against his waist while his weight sagged on one hip, and he regarded her with a mixture of expectation and curiosity.

 Oh, yes. So neat. She did not respond to the term beyond a little hum, thumbs hooking onto the straps of her bag. He carried on, diving back into the grit of the situation. Oh, woe was the park ranger! How hard his life must be! Ingrid supposed he was within his rights to demand some information, though, what with his fancy identification card, but she despised his tone.

 "Oh, you poor thing," she said in mock pity, weight shifting from one leg to the other. "I believe I startled the creature just walking along. Disturbed its burrow perhaps. So, when it attacked me, I kicked it. I doubt it was rabid. Just defensive." Not that it meant he wouldn't have to file all his paperwork, but she would be damned if she was getting any rabies shots.

She was talking quite a bit, but not in the frantic way people did when they were unexpectedly injured. Maybe she'd been under fire before and could keep her cool, but the whole event just seemed odd to him. He stared after her quizzically, and contemplated the ear piece in his pocket. He even thumbed the outline of the device in his jeans, but once he thought better of it, shook his head and turned his attention to the task at hand.

"One sec." He put down his tattered little pack and after digging in it, withdrew a large black trash bag, the thicker variety for lawn trimmings. He always carried them in case of trash or carcasses or in this circumstance, badger heads.

Luke opened the bag and set it aside, and after pulling the k-bar knife from the sheathe on his belt, examined the task he was about to undertake. He inspected closely the pained maw of the beast at his feet, and carefully set his boot on the top of its withers to press the steel toe against its vertebrae. Reaching underneath the jaw of the animal, he carefully aligned his gloved fingers away from the teeth and yanked upward, resulting in a satisfying pop that he couldn't hear but could feel rush up his bones.

Without looking behind him he cursed as he dove the tip of the blade into the gap he'd made between the beast's neck bones, "I should charge you for my laundry bill."

 Calmer now, unbothered by the man's cocky attitude and gruesome task, Ingrid would observe with crossed arms and a neutral expression. She had seen plenty of gore in her life - the decapitation of a badger was hardly the most disturbing of her experiences, but the lioness was stirred anew by the sent of more blood being spilled. It could very happily eat the little varmint. Trying not to breathe too deeply, she would avert her gaze somewhere else in the forest.

 "Or you could just take the whole carcass to your laboratory, instead of making your life harder and blaming it on me," she suggested flatly. She didn't know if he actually had a laboratory to take the body back to, but that was beside the point. "But by all means. Make a mess."

 With his back to her, he missed the cutting remarks. The knife sliced easily through meat and tendon after snapping the bone, and the animal’s head rolled away from the much heavier body once he was done. Luke use the garbage bag to collect the sample, tying it, redoubling it, and tying it two more times to ensure it wouldn’t leak before straightening up and looking back to her.

 "All right," He resigned, and glanced at the sun to gauge the time of day, direction, and figure which path would be best to take. The nearest ranger station was fairly basic, but there was a stove and Spartan medical supplies and rations, as well as a satellite phone.

 "Let’s head on up and get you taken care of."

 He ignored her, and she sighed, eyes rolling in her head. The gristly sounds of the knife tearing through flesh and bone resonated through the otherwise peaceful quiet of the woods. She would wait until he was done, although a good part of her was ready to leave long before he was finished with his stupid little mission. The woman arched a brow at his next words.

 "Get me taken care of," she repeated, indignation renewed. "I'm not going anywhere with you, ranger. I'll give you my phone number so you can call me with your findings, but that's it." She planted her hands on her hips, chin tilted somewhat, an unspoken dare for him to make her do anything.

 Her challenge was made clear with the slant of her hips and chin, and the tension in her face as she stared him down. She mocked him too, and his grin grew wide and full of teeth that never pulled all the way apart when he replied, "Well soldier, you’re not going anywhere without me."
 If she wanted to try to take them further into the woods rather than out, fine. Army twats (male or female) couldn't landnav through Reno if their lives depended on it.
 He shouldered his burden and stepped closer to her, though did not attempt to lead the way. "So ha," he jeered with finality, and stood his stubborn ground.

 She looked at him without any amusement in her features as he spoke, apparently dedicating himself to being as pestilent as possible. Ha. Her eyes flicked over him, face to feet and back up, and with a grunt she shouldered past him to carry on her original path. If he’d like to hike for several hours with a badger head in his hands, fine. Maybe he had something to prove.

 Though she was silent in her onward press, her beast rumbled unhappily in her head. The idea of trying to show up some pitiful human with hours of hiking and limited food in the bag wasn’t its idea of fun. Ingrid would do her best to distract from it’s protest by simply focusing on the untrodden path ahead, eyeing dewy ferns and the moss on passing tree trunks.

 She really meant to just go. The idea was bizarre on the brink of suspicion; what the hell kind of a person did that? "For real?" He called after her as she went. He’d challenged her to be sure, but he’d been certain she’d back down and realize how silly she was.
 "Listen lady, you need a rabies shot. Hey!" He ran after her, attempting to circle around so he could better see her face, with the trash bag in tow over his shoulder along with his rifle.

 For real? The man suddenly voiced some incredulity, and Ingrid smirked a little to herself, briefly, without responding. She could hear him picking up his pace to catch up with her, his urgent words. He couldn't know just how wrong he was, and it almost pained her to not be able to tell him as much. The woman continued moving, sparing a glance towards him before looking to the green path before her. "I'm vaccinated," she informed him, blatantly sarcastic and privately pleased by her own particular brand of humor.

 She looked back, and kept walking. His incredulity spiked into frustration, not all of which was her fault, but still played a factor. His neck felt hot against the zip of his sweater, and his voice wavered, his words suddenly slurred in a way they had been before when he called out, "Would you just stop for a goddamn minute!" As if subconsciously, his free hand moved as he spoke. He raised to fingers to his eyes, extended them forward to indicate vision, then brought a directing index finger to the center of his chest.

 There was great satisfaction in denying a man what he wanted. It made her feel powerful. She thought she could hear the rise of his heartbeat over their footfalls, but could certainly hear him shout. Some small part of her was indignant for the raised voice - the rest of her was proud to have made him lose his cocky cool. Calmly, she came to a stop, fixing him with a cold stare. "What." The prompt was flat, impatient almost.

  His exasperation bordered on incredulity. Offense was kept at bay, but only through effort and the clenching of teeth. "I’m trying to do my job," he pointed out to her, because mentioning that he was trying to help only seemed to rub her the wrong way. "And I have to file a report, and get you to the medic station, or I might lose that job."

 Ingrid scoffed at him, eyes rolling in a blatant show of cocky disregard for his problems. "Then don't file your report," she said slowly, enunciating her words as if he was at risk of missing a key syllable. "This never happened. I certainly am not going to tattle on you, ranger." She tilted her chin at him a little. "But if you think you're going to force me into anything I'm going to kick your ass."

 "‘Force’?" He looked at himself, muddied knees and bloody gloves with parts of a still-warm carcass slung over his shoulder. His eyes were wide and a little incredulous. The redness in his cheeks was no in response to cold, but of the discontent that made his face skew into something suspicious.
 "Wow. Right." Unsure of what to do, Luke scoffed and shook his head. He wasn’t quick enough with his wit for situations like this, and instead found himself retracing his steps. Perhaps he’d been a little callous with her earlier, in regards to having to shoot the animal, but he couldn’t recall what he’d done to be colored with hostility.
 Luke held a hand up in mock surrender, determining that this was not the hill he would die on. She hadn’t been reasonable or cooperative so far, entering a debate seemed futile, but he had his pride to protect with a dark remark, "Sorry I'm not sorry?"

 Huh. Ingrid narrowed her eyes at the man; maybe she'd been expecting him to actually fight her? Either way. Apparently she had out-stubborned him, and quicker than she'd thought she could do it. Sorry, he wasn't sorry. The woman made a face at him, mouth drawing down into a tight line, eyebrows raising enough to put wrinkles in her forehead. "Okay. Bye, then!" The blonde turned sharply on her heel, ready to get away from him by now. If they parted ways with him just thinking this was really strange, that was good enough for her.

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