(Mercenary, Ivan Golubiev, “Spec”, Tamara Petrenko, “Tourist”, prospector, Valerian Kruglov, “Trapper”)

“Shoot it! Shoot it!” Valerian screamed, crashing through the bushes. He looked over his shoulder and wished he had not—the mutant, a hideous black mass of bulging muscles and slashing claws, was just behind him. Valerian gasped and tried to speed up. Instead, his leg caught in a thick tangle of nettle, he stumbled and crashed into a nearby tree. Sobbing, he crawled forward, even as the beast slowed down, confident now that it had its prey cornered.

“Spec, shoot it, please,” Valerian whimpered, feeling the mutant’s hot, rancid breath on his back. Valerian screamed and buried his face into the squelching mud, hoping for a miracle but expecting death. He could hear the gigantic mutant’s low, rumbling growl as it sniffed at his ear. Then, it began to talk.

***

“Trapper? Valerian? Where are you?” Ivan Golubiev, more often than not called “Spec”, advanced a few more steps and froze, listening, with his finger on the trigger.

“I’m here, Spec,” came a whisper from a nearby red-leafed tree. Golubiev whirled and swung his rifle towards the speaker, then relaxed. It was his fellow scavenger, Valerian Kruglov, nicknamed “Trapper”, but he looked… somewhat different. In shock, maybe?

“You okay up there, buddy?” Golubiev asked, looking around. “I thought I heard shouting. Did you find it?”

“No, Ivan, I… didn’t,” Valerian said slowly as if waking from a dream. “I don’t think Chernobog is real. We should get back to the Roadhouse.” He jumped down from the tree.

“Shto? What? What about the money? What about my reputation?” Ivan protested. “I’ve never come back empty-handed. And you’re supposed to be the best hunter in Zona, so why can’t you find big-ass tracks of a big-ass gargantuan?”

Valerian ignored the complaints and set off, heading south and out of the Red Forest. Golubiev trotted after him, not quite ready to give up.

“You’ve seen the attack site. And Tamara’s photos,” he reminded Trapper. “Just imagine, you and me, Chernobog’s killers! Think about the fame! About all the money we can make!”

But Valerian remained as eerily silent as the forest around them, so, after a short while, Ivan gave up. They marched together, and it was only after they reached the Roadhouse that Ivan realized what had been bothering him during the return trip. Not even once did Valerian look at the picture of his missing son—something he used to do whenever he returned to a safe haven.

***

The Roadhouse was unusually full. Once a military bunker, now it was a refuge for scavengers. Even if you were short on money, you could always rest here or find shelter from deadly emissions. But tonight, it was positively crowded. Valerian and Ivan pushed through a throng of people—most of them acted tough but had the haunted look newcomers adopted when arriving that deep into Zona.

Ivan grinned, remembering his first visit to the Roadhouse and how he stumbled in, half-alive and with an empty old revolver as his only weapon. By the look of them, most of the men and women present had it much easier: all wore semi-decent gear, laughed, and exchanged stories.

“Most of them will die within a week,” Valerian said, not even trying to be discreet. Conversations died, but no-one bothered the two of them. They shared more stories than all of the newcomers together. Trapper and Spec pushed on, entering a small side room with a single table, strewn with pieces of electronic gear and a half-assembled, heavily modified scavenger suit. A young red-headed woman was dozing on a chair behind the table.

“Privet, Tamara,” Ivan smiled despite himself. The girl woke up immediately and sprang to her feet, reaching for the hip holster, which was empty. If you wanted to take advantage of the Roadhouse’s hospitality, you had to follow the rules and stow the weapon with Misha the Bear.

“I didn’t expect to see you so soon!” she exclaimed, circling the table. “How was it? Did my intel pay off? Did you get it? Can I see the trophy?”

“Whoa, slow down, divchina!” Ivan gave a forced laugh and shot an awkward glance at Valerian, who just stood there, frowning. Tamara did not notice anything and prattled on:

“I must know, is Chernobog real? The black gargantuan that stalks the Red Forest? If we catch it, we can get past the wolves that claimed the territory around the Observatory, but I explained all that, right? Or I didn’t?”

“You did,” Valerian said slowly. Behind him, Ivan was signaling Tamara to be careful. Trapper went deeper into the room, forcing the woman to backpedal. Suddenly, his hand shot out and without looking, he caught Ivan’s neck, squeezing it hard.

“I have a message from the one you call ‘Chernobog’…” the hunter said, simultaneously advancing on Tamara and choking Golubiev. “He tells the red-headed thief to give back what’s his. He wants his heart back.”

Ivan desperately fought for breath, hitting Trapper’s straightened arm, but Valerian was too strong. Through the red haze, he saw Tamara’s wide grin.

“So it’s true!” She exclaimed and then smashed her hand into Valerian, pumping the full load of the syringe she was hiding in her palm into the madman’s neck. He went down like a sack of potatoes. Golubiev gasped for breath and sank into a chair, which creaked under his weight. Tamara kicked the door closed and knelt near Valerian, checking his pulse.

“Blyat,” Ivan cursed. “What the hell was that, Petrenko?”

“Oh, I just needed proof. That’s all,” she beamed and stroked unconscious Trapper’s head. “During my last trip to Pripyat, I found some coded files. Wasn’t sure if I understood them correctly. Now I know I did!”

Ivan took a deep breath, got up, took a step, and kicked Valerian.

“Tamara, I do like you, but my sympathy ends when I feel like I’m being manipulated. So, each time I don’t understand something, I’ll kick poor Trapper here. Because it seems you need him.”

“Sure,” Tamara said coolly, the violence having somewhat extinguished her excitement. “I’ll use simple words, too, seeing you’re a man of action.”

Ivan faked another kick, and the woman flinched.

“Okay, sorry,” she said and put her hands up in a reconciliatory gesture. “So, there is that mutated bear, a black gargantuan that owns the Red Forest, right?”

Ivan nodded.

“The documents I brought from Pripyat mention such an experiment. You see, it’s not actually a bear, like other gargantuans. Or rather, it’s a bear, but with human consciousness, or something like that. Mind-controlling powers and other stuff, too,” she shrugged. “The point is, its brain creates… Well let’s call it a field that will scare away the wolves around the Observatory.”

Ivan nodded. Just usual weird Zona stuff so far. Then he remembered something.

“And the heart? Valerian mentioned something about a heart.”

“Oh, I found it with the documents,” she pointed towards her backpack in the corner. “An artifact of the biological kind. Improves reflexes.”

“Okay,” Ivan backed away from Trapper and crossed his arms. “So, what’s the plan?”

***

The three of them—Ivan, Tamara, and Valerian, who apparently did not remember anything that happened—were back in the Red Forest. Trapper in the lead, following Chernobog’s tracks, the other two to the sides, ready to fire their weapons. It was a windy day, and the red leaves whispered over their heads, keeping the hunters on edge.

Valerian stopped and pointed at a thicket ahead: “He’s in there. You two go right, and I’ll flush him. If you’re right, Tamara, he shouldn’t be able to detect me, since I was ‘his.’”

They followed his orders and soon disappeared from view. Valerian listened for a while, then headed towards the thicket.

“I’m back, as promised,” he whispered and knelt. The bushes shook, and a massive black-furred beast emerged, its intelligent eyes staring straight into Trapper’s. Chernobog padded closer to the man, putting its snout into Valerian’s ear. “You did well, batko. I knew you’d return to me.”

“Of course, miy syn! How could I not?”

“And the heart?”

“I’ve sent them to the ashtray anomaly, as you instructed. They’ll be weakened, and we can attack anytime,” Valerian’s voice trembled.

“We sure can!” Ivan shouted happily and opened up on Chernobog. Specially modified exploding shells made a quick work of the mutant.

“You fool!” Trapper wailed. “That was my son! He knew me!”

“No.” Tamara emerged from behind a nearby tree. “Whatever it was, it wasn’t your son, trust me.”

Valerian looked at the crumpled, stinking mass of irradiated meat.

“Yeah, you’re, it wasn’t,” he admitted with a terrible longing in his voice. “Let’s make sure we all learned our lessons.”

And he shot Chernobog in the head, splattering its brain over all three of them.

Written by: Janek Sielicki.