TW:Swearing, hunting, and references of a pop-cultural nature.
“That’s why you never go outside? Because you were bitten?” Esmerelda asked Merl, her ghillie.
He shrugged. “Four more dawns and I’d be a monster for the rest of my life. Staying down here doesn’t seem so bad compared to that.” He chugged whiskey from the bottle.
Darren looked away from Merl’s gnarled face. Esme’s son looked up to the ghillie as a father figure. The thought of the grey-haired grouch turning into something they’d have to kill put a lemon sucking look on the teen’s face.
“I know I should have told you before, but I’ve been dreading this conversation. Look at you both. Like I killed someone. Like I’m dead. I’m not. Long as I stay down here, I’ll be fine.” He pulled the discoloured collar of his surplus army T-shirt.
Tube lights flickered and hummed. The air pump whirred up on the concrete wall of the monster hunter’s bedroom. Maps flapped on their pins. Red for vampires. Brown for werewolves, blue for water spirits and so on.
“You should have told everyone when it happened, boss man. Never seen a horror movie? When they start keeping secrets from each other, people die.” Esme wrapped a leather jacketed arm around her boy.
“I know, godammit I know.” Merl’s chipped fingernails pulled a chunk from his eyebrows. He wiped them on snot green trousers covered in pockets for ammunition clips. Turning away, he started polishing a gun with a rag. “I wanted to tell y’all but every time I tried; the words just died in my mouth. I hunt monsters. They weren’t meant to get me.” His veiny hand reached for the whiskey, but Esme was swigging it.
“What the fuck is a Bandersnatch? Sounds like a porn thing.” She said, smirking at the man and the boy.
“Gross,” said Darren, pulling her arm off his shoulder. “No. It’s a monster from Alice in Wonderland. She killed it with the Vorpal Sword.”
“No. That was the Jabberwock,” said Merl
“They’re both made up though, aren’t they?” Esme asked.
“No, they’re just rare,” said the ghillie. “Like any other kind of monster, they have their preferred environment. A Bandersnatch is like a cross between a little dragon and a cheetah, fast as fuck, and if they bite you-” Merl lifted the snot green T-shirt he wore, revealing jaw shaped scars on his pale stomach.
“How big are they?” Esme asked, eyeing up the guns on her mentor’s wall lovingly.
“And how did Lewis Carroll get to know about them?”
“I looked into that, turns out an explorer gave a talk about monsters while he was at Oxford. Carroll and the explorer exchanged letters.” Merl answered the son first, then turned to his mother. “Nose to tail tip they’re the length of your car,” he sniffed, “it’s not their size that’s the issue. It’s their speed. Faster than cheetahs. They could probably outrun your Kitty.” He said, meaning the Lamborghini Diablo that Esmerelda had named.
“No one outruns Kitty, maybe the Days of Future Past’s Quicksilver, no one else.”
“What about the Flash?” Darren asked.
“Marvel, not DC. I thought I raised you better than that Darren. Do we need to have a talk?”
“If you two are done talking about irrelevant nonsense,” Merl snapped. “I was going to tell you about where to find it.”
“He’s not coming,” Esme smirked, nodding to her son.
“Half dragon, half cheetah? I’m definitely coming,” said the teen.
“Your mother’s right kid. Sit this one out. She aint going alone though. I had three guys with me when I went for that fucker. I was the only one to get out. I want you to take the whole compliment when you go hunting the Bandersnatch. Everyone.”
“Even Josh?” Esme asked, face curling into a vodka chugging face of disgust.
“Yeah, use him as bait if you have to.” Merl chuckled. The mirth vanished in a moment, eyes narrowing again. “But take everyone. You’re going to need them. No pistols, that shit won’t cut it for this one. You’ll be out of bullets hitting air before long. Fully automatic assault rifles with extended magazines. Flamethrowers maybe.”
“Flamethrowers?” Darren’s eyes were saucers. “Come on mom. Please.”
“I’ll call you the minute it’s stopped breathing and we can video chat,” Esmerelda said. “I promise baby, but no you’re not coming.” Her eyes looked at the medium sized Paramore T-shirt hanging off him.
The metal door slammed behind the skinny boy.
“Flamethrowers you say?” Esme smiled. “Josh isn’t sitting in Kitty though. No fucking way.”
Esmerelda led a dozen hunters through thick shrubbery in Tongass National Forrest in Alaska.
“We’ve been hiking for two days,” said Josh.
“And bitching about it since five minutes after we set off. Shut up Jude,” she said.
“Josh. My name is Josh.”
“And if you’re a good little boy for more than an hour maybe I’ll call you that, Jeremy.” She was glad they’d abandoned the idea of flamethrowers. Even in the rainforest, setting fire to a densely wooded area felt like suicide by barbeque. Her FAMAS assault rifle was set to a three-round burst.
“Think we’ve got enough ammo?” Asked Juno, who was five foot nothing of pure muscle and Sega inspired tattoos. Her smirk said she was joking.
“A thousand rounds each? I fucking hope so,” said Josh.
“Shut up or we’ll never fucking find it,” Esmerelda hissed. “If you want to leave, we need to kill it.”
“It could be dead already,” Josh said, “it’s been how many years since Merl saw it?”
“If it’s dead you can carry it back, until then, shut up Jason.”
“What are we even looking for out here? A sign that says Bandersnatch den two hundred feet on the left? They look, part dragon, part tiger? Was Merl drunk?”
Sounds from everyone else made Josh back down. They all had guns and none of them liked him.
“They like the smell of body odour and moron. So, they’re bound to come sniffing you out,” Esme said. She knew it was unfair to call out his stench. None of them had washed. They were dry under their camouflage ponchos and the waterproof trousers and boots. They were all sweating worse than drunks in a sauna.
“I’ve got something,” said Juno. She had her hood down, exposing the scars through her buzz cut hair to the light that fought its way through the pines and the stringy moss that hung down like cobwebs.
Tattooed hands showed red scales to the irritable tribe. They all had blistered feet. They all wanted to go home.
“Looks like wolf tracks,” said Leon. “He said their tracks look like wolf tracks, didn’t he?”
“He did.” Esme nodded. Drops of water fell from the waxy surface of her poncho.
The tracks led them to the body of a rabbit which had been gnawed clean. Hair on the ground showed where the creature had lain to nap after its kill. It had flattened ferns into a bed. It was little bigger than a Labrador.
“It likes rabbit?” Esme said. “Let’s set a trap. We can catch rabbit easier than a Bandersnatch. Teams of two, go get a rabbit per team and we’ll lay on a banquet for the Bandersnatch.”
“Wasn’t that the name of the guy who plays Doctor Strange?” Josh asked.
“No, dumbass. That’s Cumberbatch. His chin is probably sharper than this thing’s teeth, but he doesn’t look that fast, more like an otter.” As a fan of the MCU and otters, Esme couldn’t have the hunter misnaming the link between the two.
After eating one rabbit, they hung the rest from the branches of a pine near the creature’s last kill.
Instead of a monster from Alice in Wonderland, three bears ambled up through the forest and stole the kills.
“My rabbit is too big, said the baby bear. My rabbit is too small, said the mommy bear. I have two rabbits, said daddy bear.” Josh said it all as if he was reading a book to an infant.
“Is there something wrong with you?” Juno hissed at him, as the bears wandered away.
“No. I have autism.”
“I always knew you were on the spectrum,” Juno said, scratching her scalp.
“We’re all on the spectrum, idiot. That’s why it’s called the spectrum.” He rolled over, flattening ferns who’d been minding their own business. “What’s next then boss? Do we sing White Rabbit by Jefferson Airplane and hope it comes running to its title track?”
“No. Firstly because any film trying to be remotely trippy uses that in the soundtrack. Secondly because my favourite so far is the version from Sucker Punch. The music was the only thing that didn’t piss me off about that film.” Esme checked the blood streaks leading away into the woods.
“That was the point,” Josh argued.
“This really isn’t the time for arguing about which version of White Rabbit is best,” said Juno, aiming her gun at the tracks left by the bears. “Especially since your both wrong and the one from The Matrix is better.”
Esme nodded, she certainly agreed on the film choice. “Alright. The trap didn’t work. Do we try again and hope the bears don’t come back, or do we keep hunting, following those tracks?”
“I vote option A if we get to camp.” Josh raised a hand. “More rabbits, we set up the tents and take shifts. Sleep with our guns. That way we’re always ready.”
“Holy shit. I’m agreeing with Josh,” Esme looked around. The stoic tagalongs were nodding. “Lazy fucker tactics win the day then. Let’s set camp. We’ll have to go far from the tents to do our business or the scent will scare it off. Hopefully I don’t have to say that twice.”
Two weeks passed. Every phone battery lost charge. Esme began to wonder if their snoring was scaring away every animal in the forest. It was a grim revelation that they all snored worse than she did.
An elbow in the ribs was the first sign of excitement. Darkness hung around her.
“Something’s taking the bait,” Juno whispered. The woman’s eyes were glued to the scope of her gun. “That has to be it.”
Looking down the sight of her own rifle. Lean legs with spotted fur. A tail the length of the body. A long neck. Frills along the spine. Yellow eyes that could move independently like a chameleon.
“Got a shot?” Esme asked.
“Yeah,” said Juno.
“Me too. On three?”
“Count me in.”
“One.” It turned, looking through the moonlit night.
“Two.” The nose twitched, a cat’s nose. It took a step towards them.
“Three.” A calloused finger squeezed the trigger of her FAMAS. Three bullets leapt from her gun. Three from Juno’s assault rifle raced them to the target.
It tumbled out of view into the ferns behind the trap.
Hunters leapt from their tents, woken by the familiar sound of suppressed gunfire. The team approached the blood splashes on the ground.
Paw prints led away through the forest. Injured as it was, it was making a hell of a run through the undergrowth.
“Come on. We’re not losing it now.” Turning on the torch attached to the underside of her gun, Esme ran full pelt into the bushes after the beast.
She ran right into the trap. Scrambling over fallen trees, she followed the drips of blood on the leaves until she found a cave beneath a hill.
Footsteps thumped behind her. Eyes peered down from the hilltop. Eyes blinked in the blackness of the cave.
Esmerelda stopped dead. Holding up her fist, she heard the party do the same.
Four pairs of eyes were watching them.
One was still transforming as it lurched towards them. Half bearded hiker, half graceful monster. The Bandersnatches spread out around the hunters.
“There are only four.” Esme’s voice betrayed her, quivering. “Me and Juno are on the one dead ahead. Josh and Marty, you get the one on the right. Alan and Beck, the one on the left. Rick and Dave, you get the one that’s circling behind us. Mo and Dennis, shoot wherever you think needs it most. Agreed?”
“Agreed,” they said in unison.
Fire.” The word shot from her throat faster than a bullet.
Her gun coughed three doses of death. Every gun hacked up bullets, projectile vomiting led into the monsters.
“One down,” said Marty.
“Two down,” said Dennis.
“Ack. Shit!” Said Dave.
The vicious teeth cutting through Dave’s ankle were less than ideal. Three bursts from Esme, Juno and Dennis put an end to the beast tearing at the man’s leg.
“Last one,” Esmerelda said. “Where is it?”
“It ran off,” Alan shouted, running after it. Beck was right behind him.
“Josh, Marty. Go with them, make sure that thing dies without biting anyone.”
“On it,” Josh said. He threw himself into the undergrowth.
“Bind that wound and let’s get him back to camp,” Esmerelda pointed to Juno and Mo. “You two.” She pointed to Rick and Marty. “Make sure these three are dead, then come back to camp.”
The worst thing about Dave’s injury was having to carry him back across hundreds of miles of forest. Four Bandersnatch skulls hung from their packs. The bodies had been burnt in a pit and buried deep enough to keep anything but worms from eating them.
They returned to what they variously call Base Camp, the Pit, or the Bunker.
“You did it?” Merl asked. He held a Bandersnatch skull in his hand. “Holy fuck. I need to get word to my bosses.” He turned the lump of bone, running a finger over the bullet hole.
“You have a boss?” Everyone asked.
“Course. You morons thought I had a limitless bag of gold to pay for all the shit we do?” He smirked. “We all technically work for a branch of exorcists that broke from the catholic church at the same time the Templars were wiped out by the King of France. That’s where the money comes from. It’s what pays for this whole shebang.” He looked at Esme. “These are definitely going on the wall.” With a smile that anyone in their right mind would call creepy, he paid for a round of drinks.
“Fuck you Bandersnatch!” Merl roared, holding a shot of whiskey over his head.
“You didn’t get my vorpal sword?” Darren asked, then left the bar.
No one remembered much that happened next.
Alcohol did more damage than the hunt had to everyone but Dave.