LORE BELOW: Trigger warnings for animal harm, animal death, starvation, and human death.
The year is 1827. The small Siberian town of Aidara is inhabited by no more than 200 people, and that number is dropping fast — by the day, by the hour.
The winter has been particularly brutal, bringing blizzards that seem to have no end and nights that stretch on and on, swallowing up daylight faster than the sun can bring relief and warmth to the rolling forests that line the frozen Ket river.
The frost gobbles up crop and whatever hoof stock the citizens of Aidara might have on hand. Cattle freeze to death in their pens, hooves frozen to the ground.
The citizens of Aidara are nothing short of starving — going hungry, one by one, each household desperately rationing whatever remaining food they might have in store.
Some leave town and travel south in search of aid and relief. Some venture into the forest, stomping head-on into the storm, in hopes that some unlucky deer or rabbit or fox stumbles across their path.
But it’s not just the frost that looms over the village in an icy blanket of death. The few villagers who return from their trips to the forest whisper of monsters and shadows and things that should not be.
One man swears by the Ket that he’d seen a bear black as the night and twice the size of a draft horse sniffing around his pigpen. The town’s livestock that haven’t frozen to death seem skittish and flighty, as if to prove the man’s point.
A woman called Kazya notices one morning that her beloved milk cow has gone missing, the thick log posts that had once formed a pen seemingly shredded by something positively enormous.
The town is disquieted by the news. If the cold doesn’t kill them, the monstrous bear certainly will. In a freeze like this, wildlife tend to have less of a regard for the guns and blades of the humanfolk.
Animals can get desperate, just the same as humans can. Caution is thrown to the wind in the face of hunger, even amongst the beasts of the forest.
Two days following the disappearance of Miss Kazya’s milk cow, the poor thing’s half eaten carcass shows up in a pool of blood against the bank of the Ket. She had been dragged across the ice, disemboweled, and nearly beheaded by something much larger than she.
Shortly thereafter, disappearing livestock becomes a trend. Almost every day a new animal turns up dead; half eaten, ripped to shreds, dragged around like a chewy toy and left to rot along the banks of the Ket.
It’s not difficult to hear the shuffling of the beast as it wanders around outside the village homes in the dead of night, looking for its next meal. Mothers and fathers keep their hands pressed firmly over their childrens’ weeping mouths.
Best not let the beast know you’re there.
Mikhail Sidorov is the first and only son of Pasha and Roza Sidorov. He’s tall and thin as his father, stubborn and obstinate as his mother. He’s classically handsome, and before the freeze, he’d been healthy as an ox.
But as he began to wonder where his next meal would come from, his angular features would hollow, his limbs growing spindly, the lean muscles across his shoulder shriveling until all that’s visible under his clothes are the knobs of his bones where they punch against his skin.
But Mikhail has been hunting with his father for the better part of 20 years, has braved winters just like these for nearly 30. Mikhail is tough as they come — and hunger, above all else, is what drives him into the forest one evening despite the advancing night.
He clutches his hand axe, pulling his heavy fur coat tight around his shoulders. If Mikhail’s village cannot eat their livestock, then they will eat the bear causing all this trouble. His pelt could make many coats for the children, blankets for the elderly.
They have taken to calling the bear Ugroza — menace. It is not hard for Mikhail to find him, simply following the shredded trees and bloody trials where countless numbers of prey have been dragged through the snow and slaughtered with one mighty blow of a massive paw.
Ugroza is dozing when Mikhail finds him. Mikhail is half-mad with hunger, gaze wild as he finally gets a good look at the bear that had been tormenting his village.
The man from town hadn’t been wrong. Ugroza is a mountainous creature, his size simply indescribable. The beast is larger and uglier than any bear Mikhail had ever seen before — black as night, scarred and welted beyond recognition.
The bear has arrows protruding from his back where the skin has regrown and scarred around them. Ugroza’s head is the size of a cart wheel, his great black muzzle stained a deep crimson, still shiny and wet from his most recent kill.
Despite the frigid wind pulling icy fingers through Mikhail’s hair, sweat breaks out along his brow and the back of his neck. He clutches his axe a little tighter, holding his breath as he listens to the deep rumble of the sleeping bear’s chest.
He takes a step forward through the snow. One step is all it takes. Ugroza’s eyes snap open, and Mikhail is sickened to see that they are an unholy shade of red, glowing like embers against the vast expanse of the bear’s scarred face.
Ugroza grumbles and gets to his feet, not a moment’s hesitation as he lunges for Mikhail.
It would be nice to say that Mikhail was a hero — that he was good enough, quick enough, strong enough to slay the beast plaguing his village. But he was not. Ugroza descended on him as frenzied as a pack of wolves and Mikhail could only raise his arm feebly.
Ugroza ripped and tore, Mikhail becoming a ragdoll in the bear’s foaming jaws. A black mist rippled through the clearing, the chill growing even stronger around them as Ugroza tossed Mikhail around like a toy.
The Entity had come to claim its bounty. It reached out for Ugroza — the flailing mass of gnashing teeth and rippling muscle and bloody fur — but found Mikhail instead, still fighting weakly with the handaxe he still hadn’t let go of.
The man and the bear were so closely intertwined in a tangle of legs and fur and skin and teeth and the Entity reached blindly for the source of the frenzy and —