“The cane?” she asked, staring at the wolf’s head topper.
“My father almost beat me to death with it once. Sweetest thing he ever did for me.”
She didn’t like that answer, and she didn’t like me. To be fair, I didn’t need to be so sour about it. It was an innocent question. Near as I can tell, she’s even an innocent girl. Which is why I agreed to help her. That was about nine hours ago, way back in my office. What a difference nine hours can make.
“Larry!” she whispers to me, bringing me back to the present. It’s a present that smells like sweat and desperation and a clock ticking too damned fast. We’re deep in the fog—why is it always the fog?—and there’s no way this ends well for her. I shoulda stayed out of this, should have left her to whatever she’d stirred up, but she shot me those puppy dog eyes and the old dog in me sat up and decided to try and do a good thing one more time. It’s a new trick he never quite stops trying to learn, but she and I both woulda been better off if he’d just rolled over.
“They’re coming, Larry!” she whispers to me in a rasp. She’s so scared I can hear her heartbeat from two feet away… though I guess maybe most men couldn’t. Being a detective and all, I guess I’m perceptive like that. Sure.
“How do we stop them?” she asks me, and I haven’t the foggiest. These things she’s stirred up—she said they’d been following her for weeks, whatever they are—I haven’t been able to figure out. They don’t much mind bullets, but they don’t like light. If not for the fog, maybe the moon’d scare ‘em off soon, but thing being as they are, by the time the moon comes out it’ll be far too late, fog or no.
She scratched one of ‘em when it reached through a window earlier, and it screeched and pulled back for a beat, so at least there’s that. There’s all sorts of nasty myths about things that can’t be hurt by manufactured means, so if we had time, maybe it’d mean something. A last stand of sharpened sticks and claws might actually do us some good… or, hell, might get her killed. Not that this won’t.
I haven’t gotten a real good look at what’s chasing us, either. All long shadows and sudden angles, something old and thirsty and mean. She says she saw the first one bout a month ago, after her auntie’s funeral. Some sort of family curse, I’m sure, but then I’ve never been any good at solving curses. Crimes, those I can solve, sometimes. Curses… well, look, there’s a reason nobody believes in ‘em. People don’t like problems without solutions. Doesn’t matter how real they are.
All this musing isn’t doing either of us any good, though, and out in the open like this we got no shot against what’s coming for us. I take her hand without looking at it—instead I look to the sky to see if that moon’s showing yet—and off we go. I figure if I can get her to high ground somewhere, maybe I can at least lead ‘em off, buy her time till moonrise, and she’ll make it through the night… if I can make it far enough from her before they catch me.
History suggests I’m wrong about that. Lost little girls with tragic backstories running from eldritch horror they don’t understand ain’t exactly the recipe for a happy ending, but I don’t like letting destiny have its way without putting up a fight. Sure, fate might have rolled me for my lunch money more times than I can count, but the nice thing about a familiar bully is you know that you can take what they’ll dish out if you’re lucky enough to stub their toe once in a while.
“Larry… thank you, for trying,” she sobs, slowing down no matter how hard I try to drag her. I’ve seen this before. Her spirit just gave. That’s a shame. “I… I was so afraid, and I still am.. but… at least I know there are still good men in the world. That’s not such a bad thought to die with, is it?” Oh boy.
“I’m not a good man, sweetheart, and you shouldn’t have to die. If we can make it up to the crags, you’ll have a shot. But we have to hurry. We’ve got to get there before the moon comes out… the light’ll scare them off, but they probably know that, too. If they make the crags first…” I trail off. I’m lying to her—I don’t know what the hell these things are, let alone how they hunt—but I’ve got to get her moving.
She bites back her gasps, and she nods, resolute, ready to go again. I can hear them after us, though. They don’t move like animals, or like men. It’s a windy, rasping sound they make as they cross ground, a sound that carries farther than it ought to. I’m starting to think the noises they make are intentional, designed to scare their prey.
The way they’ve been stalking her, I figure they’re either feeding off her fear…or tracking her by it. Her terror in the face of death is their aperitif. That might make my little decoy plan a bit trickier; I’m too old and too tired to fear these things like she does, and I’ve tried way harder than this to die before. Heck, by that logic, these things might be more scared of me than I am of them, and I can’t say I blame ‘em… I’m pretty scared of myself sometimes, too.
I finally see the crags up ahead, and we just might make it. That was a real dumb thing to think, though, because not ten seconds go by before one of ‘em lunges out of the dark at us. Damn thing might be eleven feet tall, but even though I’m looking right at it, it’s like I can only see it peripherally; can’t properly make it out.
I swing the cane all the same, though, and it connects. The silver on the head sizzles and it’s nice to know sometimes coincidence plays my side of the field, too. The creature shrieks—though not as loud as the girl, surprisingly—and jumps back into the mist. My arm’s gone numb, though, and not in any kind of a normal way. These things aren’t from around here, and the chills and aches where my arm ought to be—well, still is, I just can’t feel it—tell me even if this girl makes it through the night, she’s got a long, scary road ahead of her.
Let’s hope she’s lucky enough to walk it.
I pick up my cane with my other hand, grab her wrist again—eyes forward—and drag on.
“Larry, are you alright?” she asks.
“No. But we need to keep moving.”
“Just… wait a second,” she says, breathing heavily. The faint starlight dances briefly off the tears and sweat on her cheeks. A younger man might find that image beautiful, I just find it sad.
“I owe you an apology, for all of this… but also a thank you. You are a good man.” She chuckles a little in spite of herself. “Pure of heart, even, though you try to hide it.” She takes another deep breath, and I don’t have it in me to correct her. She’s a sweet girl trying to do a good thing, I can respect that, even if I don’t have time for it. I try to interrupt but she cuts me off.
“I’m sorry I’ve been so… useless up to now. But seeing you fight that thing off… I believe we can make it. I believe in you.” She forces herself to smile, and it’d be a touching moment if it weren’t also a waste of time we don’t have.
I nod, and grab her hand again. “Thanks, kid. But we’ve got to go. Now.” I can feel her pulse in her wrist, and the sweat on it. Hell, I can even smell it, adrenaline-drenched and acrid, cutting right through the tired jasmine perfume she put on this morning. She’s never been this scared, she’s never even seen anybody this scared. I have. I know I’ve got maybe ten minutes to get her to safety before she does something really stupid.
Nine minutes later, we crest the crags, breaking through a fog ceiling into crisp, refreshing, indifferent night air. I glance to the sky, and there’s that shimmering aura we were rooting for peeking out from behind one of the clouds. The moon will be out soon. Very, very soon, even. We made it to where she needs to be, now I just need to make it away from here and take those things with me.
“Stay here, I’m gonna lead them away.” I start to head back down.
“No! Larry, please, stay with me… they won’t come up here once the moon is out, you’ll be safe too.” She’s a good kid. She doesn’t want to let me die for her, and I respect that. But she’s wrong.
“Nah, we can’t know that. It’s an educated guess at best, but we aren’t educated. You’re a naïve little girl in over her head and I’m a tired old man who just wants to make it back to the bottle of Bulleit in my desk. Think I’ll do that now…if those things are dumb enough to chase me, that’s their problem; I’m a mean drunk.” I manage a wink and a smile, see if I can get her to believe me. For a second, it seems like it worked, and I turn again.
But it’s been ten minutes now, and right on queue… “No, I won’t let you. Stay, dammit!” she shouts it like she’s shaming an overprotective pit bull. I’m too busy being in a hurry to take offense, but then she grabs my wrist to stop me. I pull away, but as I do I look down at her hand on reflex, and immediately regret it.
Sure enough, there’s a pentagram on her palm. I knew there would be, I just didn’t want to see it. Like I said, I can’t solve curses, and I’ve had this one a long time; it lets me know when someone’s about to meet a bad end… mostly, I wager, just to rub my nose in it. She’s going to die tonight, in spite of everything I did to try and save her, and nothing else I do from here will work. Same old story.
I try to change the ending anyway by pushing her back, and she trips over a stone and lands on her ass.
“Larry?!” she cries, and I toss the cane at her feet as the moon peeks out from behind the cloud.
After all that, it’s now that my heart quickens; what the beasts below couldn’t do, this finally did. All of a sudden I’m sweaty and terrified, same as her, and I drop to my knees. If those things can smell fear, they definitely know where I am now, but it won’t do them any goddamn good at this point. They’re about as likely to make it through the night as she is, now.
My bones buckle inside of me, and I cough a little blood as my throat tightens and gums rip. My fingers splay and grow and out come the claws.
“Larry?! LARRY!” she shrieks, learning the hard way she still had a deeper well of terror to tap into. I grunt and nod to the cane. Her eyes follow, and she starts to reach for it, gingerly. Too gingerly, given the circumstances.
“The cane?” she asks. I use the last of my humanity to growl out a reply.
“My father almost beat me to death with it once. Sweetest thing he ever did for me.”
She doesn’t like that answer, and she probably doesn’t like me anymore, but that doesn’t matter now because I’m no longer the one she’s dealing with. Doesn’t matter how much she believes in me now, even if she was right… ‘cause even a man who’s pure of heart, and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfsbane blooms, and the Autumn moon is bright.
My dad taught me that poem. He’s dead now, too.