He should have found the first one by now! He walked faster. Father had told him to take care of his mother and sister. He had to check the traps! His head turned left, right, and then left again. Identical snow-laden branches stretched far into the darkening forest. Trying not to cry, he sniffed, and then stopped, his nose in the air. Was that smoke? He squinted through the trees, and saw…

(Stories need only touch on this topic in some way to qualify.)

He should have found the first one by now! He walked faster, his feet almost dragging with dread. Father had told him to take care of his mother and sister. He’d trusted him, taken his hand on his deathbed and told him that he had to be brave, had to protect them.

His head turned in every direction. He looked up at the identical snow-laden branches stretching far into the darkening forest. He didn’t feel brave.

He shook his head, trying to clear it of the impending fear. He had to check the traps!

Trying not to cry, he sniffed, and then stopped, confused. Was that smoke? He squinted through the trees and saw the flickering of a light, far in the distance. He followed it, hoping he had gotten turned around and the fire was coming from his village.

He ducked under branches and tripped over snowbanks until he came to the edge of the woods and a lake. He sighed. At least he knew where he was, but it was nowhere near home. He would have to backtrack quite a long way. He hoped he would at least find the traps before he made it back to the beginning.

In his frustration, he picked up a large rock that lay near his feet and threw it in the direction of the lake. The ice cracked loudly and splintered around the rock before opening beneath it and swallowing the heavy stone in its icy depths.

He turned to leave, and the smell of smoke assaulted his nose again. He looked in the direction the smell was coming from and saw the fire as it flared up in the distance, illuminating its owner. His heart constricted and he stood frozen to the spot.

Across the small lake was something that could only be described as demonic in nature. It was some form of animal, but it was like no animal he had ever seen. Its tall, lean form stood erect like a man as it sniffed the wind. The beast’s ears twitched, and it sniffed the air as the crack of the ice came to it from across the lake, but the boy was downwind from it and it bent to its task once more.

Its tail twitched behind it as it ripped apart the body of a small creature. The clawed, humanoid fingers were black with blood as they burrowed into the dangling body, the sound of bones breaking echoed across the lake.

The beast brought the animal’s heart to its mouth and bit into it with sharp, dog-like teeth. Blood gushed into its mouth and flowed over, dripping and steaming in the cold air. The boy stood frozen, paralyzed in fear, staring at the horrifying sight before him.

Slowly, ever so slowly, the boy came out of his daze and climbed back up the bank. He slipped and grabbed a nearby tree branch to keep from falling. The branch snapped as he grabbed it and he fell face-first into the snow. He tried not to cry out as his leg caught on a downed branch. The splintered wood ripped through his thick clothing and into his leg. He could feel warm blood drip down his leg as he scrambled to get up.

He tried to calm himself as a small sob escaped his lips and tears slipped down his cheeks. His breathing was erratic, and he bit his lip hard in an attempt to steady himself. He closed his eyes and limped back in the direction he had come.

Suddenly, the wind snapped the boy’s hair back sharply as it wrapped around him, changing direction. His heart constricted in his chest and he looked behind him in fear. The demon’s head snapped up as the smell of fresh blood reached it from across the lake. It cast the half-eaten heart to the ground and sniffed the wind. It licked its blood-covered chops, lifted its massive head and issued a deep, guttural howl before it bounded in the direction of the nearby bridge.

The boy’s eyes widened, and he turned, before breaking into a run. His leg burned and throbbed with every stride and he tripped and scurried, all the while leaving a bright red trail behind him. He made it as far as a clearing in the woods before he was forced to slow down. The snow was deeper here, and he struggled to keep his footing. He sank and stumbled, his leg not cooperating as he tried to force his way through the too deep snow.

He panted and sobbed and crawled, until he heard a sharp cry behind him. He chanced a glance and saw the demon had stopped pursuing him. His gaze lit up as realization dawned. The thing had caught itself in one of the traps.

As he watched it claw at the metal vice in vain, it suddenly let out a howl that seemed to give way to a harsh scream. He stared wide-eyed at the sight before him, unable to believe what he was seeing. There was no sign of the beast anywhere. In its stead was a man, utterly exposed and trembling in the snow. Sweat glistened on his naked skin, despite the chill. The man looked up and through the tangle of hair and beard the boy saw something familiar in the depths of the twinkling eyes.

“Dad?” he asked.