Hallowdale

Chapter 10: Hunting Again

Like he’d done the night before, Alexander lay buried in leaves. The rifle was heavy in his hands, his fingers numb in spite of gloves.

Come on, you old bat!

This was the night. He could feel it. There’d be nothing to disturb his hunt this time. Fog rolled into the valley, oozed through the village, converged on the mansion. The great house perched heavy and dark, oblivious to the hunter hidden in the hills above. Alexander adjusted his posture and steadied his aim. There! The shadows in one of the windows shifted. He zeroed in on the window and waited for it to move again.

A low howl swelled through the air.

Alexander’s blood froze. There are legends. Things in the woods. The numbness in his fingers gave way to sweat. He’d done so much research before coming here. So many elusive manuscripts. Now and then he’d caught hints, vague mentions of the abomination.

Don’t loose it now, he ordered himself. Whatever it is, it’s far away. You have time.

He returned his focus to the mansion, but now sweat dripped into this eye and his legs twitched. I’ve done nothing but prepare for her, but this other thing…I don’t even know what it is, much less how to kill it!

The howl came again, long and mournful. There was a shrieking undercurrent. Anger. Pain. This was no mere animal. And it was getting closer.

With a curse Alexander sprang from his hiding place and ran for his motorcycle, slinging his rifle over his shoulder as he went. The forest was coming alive, echoing with rustling leaves and snapping branches.

He reached his bike just in time to see it thrown into a tree by a…by a what? It was too dark to make out clearly. There was a huge, bulbous mass at its center, pale and misshapen. Silhouetted tentacles writhed around it, whispering and groaning like slender tree limbs. Bits of sharp bone protruded from patches of black fur, and at the top of everything perched a small head that flopped back and forth on a neck with no vertebrae. From its pointed ears and long snout, Alexander identified it as canine.

The thing lunged toward him, and Alexander scrambled away. Vines lashed out, stinging his back as he turned and ran. The forest sounded like it was collapsing behind him. He focused on propelling himself forward, leaping fallen branches and weaving between the trunks. The monstrous silhouette of his pursuer loomed in his mind, and he began to make sense of it.

That’s right, it was a dog once. Some sort of necromancy.

A dark tendril shot past his head and wrapped around an oncoming tree. The vine tensed, and Alexander dove out of the way as his pursuer barreled by. He caught a glimpse of pale, lifeless eyes glowing with reflected moonlight. The thing stood on short, crooked legs. Its chest was split, its ribs pushed aside to make room for the—

That was as far as his observation got. The creature spun and resumed its chase, its head flapping like a loose piece of dead skin—which was pretty much all it was. Alexander saw a long pool of shadow up ahead: a wide ditch. He burst over it, clearing the gap with inches to spare, and kept going. Behind him, the creature stumbled into the ditch and went down. As the thing flailed and crashed about, Alexander put some distance between it and him. He knew the space wouldn’t last long. In spite of its clumsy-looking bulk, the thing was fast. Thinking quickly, he made for the nearest tree and began to climb.

The creature had regained its footing and was once more crashing through the undergrowth. It slammed into Alexander’s tree, nearly shaking him loose. Alexander gripped the branches so hard the bark cut his skin. Vines were springing up around him, trying to establish a hold. Alexander reached into his belt, pulled out a long silver dagger, and slashed. The tentacle offered no resistance. It crumbled like dust, and from below there rose an awful shriek. The tree shook again, and the creature began to climb, pulling itself up with its myriad tendrils. One of the vines caught Alexander’s ankle, and he felt himself slipping, slipping, falling.

The creature reared back as Alexander fell, fully exposing its ruined chest. The gourd-like growth rippled and split, opening like a jack-o-lantern mouth. Just before he fell in, Alexander planted his feet on either side of the mouth and arrested his descent. Looking down, he could see a network of stringy guts. At their center, still and lifeless, was a heart.

He had no time to think. Already the creature was bringing its vines to bear, trying to knock him off his perch and into the waiting maw. Alexander reached back and swung his rifle to point at the mass of innards beneath him.

This better work.

He pulled the trigger. The shot shattered the forest, and the creature fell away. The vines around Alexander went limp and were lost amidst the vegetation. The great shell that Alexander stood on now crunched under his weight, and Alexander soon found himself sprawled in a mess of bone and fur.

After recovering himself, he looked down at the creature, which seemed smaller now. Pieces of the thing that had protruded from its chest were scattered everywhere, and Alexander could now identify them as the remains of a giant pumpkin.

A whimper drew his attention to the head. Up close, it looked like a normal dog. The clouded eyes were motionless in their sockets, but the ears twitched. Another whimper escaped the whiskered lips, and entire corpse shuddered.

“Poor thing,” Alexander muttered. He fired another silver bullet into the head, and everything was still.

When the last echoes of the blast died away, Alexander looked back toward the valley. Any hope he had of taking his quarry by surprise was gone now. Even if she didn’t know it was him, she’d know there was someone in her woods with a gun, and she’d come looking. The hunted would become the hunter—but then again, she always was the hunter, wasn’t she?

His motorcycle was ruined. He found it smashed, which meant he was stuck in Hallowdale until the truck arrived the next morning. With a resigned sigh he stowed his weapons and returned to the village.

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