Howl of a Halloween

Ruebus sighed. The mountain air chilled him, and he pulled the thick blanket more tightly around him. He had already removed his clothing and placed them in a bag in the back of the pick up. He was miles out of town, and the scent of pine assured him of the closeness of wilderness. Night was falling and a few stars were already peeking out at the retreating day. His heartbeat had slowed and he was comforted by the methodical thud in his chest as he looked up to welcome the night.

He had found it amusing that the full moon had fallen on Halloween this year. Earlier in the day, he had even kidded himself that he would be able to stay in town, as everyone would think he was just wearing a costume. The smile had soon faded though. He could never completely remember the full effect of the transformation, but he was certain that it would be all too convincing. He could never even remember if he walked on two legs, or ran on four. In fact, all he ever remembered was what we saw and felt in his dreams. The chasing down of a deer or the bloodlust thundering through his veins just before terrible jaws snapped shut.

This was his fourth full moon. If he had known that the dog he’d hit that day was a wolf, he probably wouldn’t have even got out of the car. But that was old news now. One of the benefits of being a lycanthrope was a remarkable ability to heal and the scar had disappeared after his first full moon. He had been on the ranch, bringing in the horses when he had begun to change. The horses had been spooked all day. The next morning, he had found what was left of the two that hadn’t fled fast enough. Ever since then, he had made sure he was no-where near a human on the night of the full moon. He was never going to risk that.

The noise of the engine snapped him out of the trance he had slipped into. A car was coming up the road. It was still out of sight, far round the bend. But it was getting closer. His heightened senses took over, his ears, already slightly narrower and more tipped than a few minutes ago, seemed to prick up and follow the sound as it drew nearer. He was poised to run. But something held him there.

The car screamed round the bend, almost out of control. It was a black SUV, with tinted windows, and even his eyes couldn’t see the driver. The popping sound from the wheel arch came unexpectedly. The car was already sideways when the blowout shook the chassis, lifting it into the air as it spun wildly out of control. It crashed down onto its side and slid along the road in a shower of sparks and grinding metal, the sound so loud in his ears that he lifted up his hands to cover them. He could feel his hands and palms tingling as thick fur threatened to sprout from his pores, and his fingernails thickened and hardened as they rested against his skin.

The night descended still, and Ruebus knew that only a few seconds of his humanity remained. He didn’t look behind him as he heard the family scramble from the car. He ran in the opposite direction, driving himself further and further from the sounds and smells of the accident. He began to head for the tree line, hoping the wolf in him would carry on in the same direction. It was not to be.

The snapping sound in his knees drove him to the ground in a crumpled heap. As his leg bones broke, shattered and reformed into a new shape, he let out a blood-curdling scream of agony. It only ended when there was no air left in his chest. His eyes bulged in their sockets as they changed shape and colour, seeping blood as they did. The thick, dark brown fur erupted from every pore in his skin, as steel-like talons, as black as the oncoming night, curled from his fingers and toes. His spine cracked as it curved, sending him into a spasm of renewed agony. The changes hit him in waves, re-shaping his legs into powerful back limbs. His arms bent and buckled as they became heavy and hard. His skull flattened and fractured as long powerful jaws extended into place. As if in triumph of overcoming the frail human form it had been only moments ago, the wolf roared into the night air, and held its head high in a single, chilling howl.

The scents were what came to it first. The leaking oil from the upturned engine; the spilling gasoline, the wisp of perfume from the mother’s neck, the sweat and blood on the hands of the man. They all tempted it back towards the road. It slunk silently towards the brow of the hill where it already knew the car lay. At the ridge, it paused as it saw three people huddled against the underside of the upturned car. The wolf allowed them to see him as it took a few careless steps towards them, sending loose stones down the bank in their direction. It savoured the sounds of the screams and the smell of fear in the air as the two females stood up. It fixed its eyes on the man as it parted its lips and narrowed its eyes as it thought with evil pleasure of the nightmare its human-self would wake from the following night. And then it leapt.

~

If you like the short stories sometimes featured on this blog, you can find novels by the author here and here.

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The Converse Carnivore

When we begin to look into the possibility of cryptids, the focus is usually on the available evidence and facts that might substantiate the existence of such creatures. Since I was small, it was always the first hand encounters that gripped me with fear or had me reaching for the light switch.

With that in mind, I’ve decided to take some of my favourite encounters, some historic, some more recent, and fictionalise them. I hope you enjoy them. Our first story is about something hairy and homicidal in the woods of Converse, near San Antonio in Texas. Purported to have happened some time in the 1960’s, the exact date is lost to history, and some accounts suggest an origin in the late 1800’s. But the core always remains the same. A retired military man forces his studious son on a hunt that takes place at Skull Crossing. The boy is frightened by something, but still his father makes him go back…

Rites of passage are about tradition and transition. They usually mark the turning from one phase of life to another for instance. For one young man on his first hunt, the transition would be one of being alive to dead.

~

Major Abraham ‘Bram’ Miller let out a deep and audible sigh. He had waited weeks for this moment, but now it had arrived, the look of confusion and disappointment on Ethan’s face was more than he could bear. The boy was shaking, and the old soldier knew that at any moment the tears would start to flow. Damn it, your first rifle and you act like it’s a turd he thought. As if on cue, Ethan turned to face him, tears streaming down his cheeks.

“I don’t want it,” Ethan sniffed, looking at his feet.

“Son, we talked about this,” Bram said. “We’re going hunting this weekend. You need a gun and I bought this for you.”

“I don’t want a gun, I don’t want to go hunting, and I don’t want to fight,” Ethan replied defiantly and coldly. His gaze returned to his feet. He knew what was coming next.

Bram looked at the Ruger 10/22 rifle sitting on the counter. The stock and barrel had been shortened and the wood grain had been brought out and refinished to his specifications. Frank Merryweather smiled knowingly at the boy and Bram from behind the register.

“It’s a beautiful rifle Ethan,” the shop owner said to the boy kindly. “I’m sure I could find another buyer for it.” He caught Miller’s icy cold stare,  but he knew what he was doing. “Of course though, that would mean another boy strutting through town with what was meant to be your rifle. I’m sure you don’t want that. Why not just try it for size for now?”

Ethan looked up and stopped crying. The calm tone had calmed him. He offered up his hands as Merryweather lifted the gun off the counter and handed it to him gently. He was surprised by how light it was. As he ran his finger along the grain and the barrel, he enjoyed the change in texture from warm wood to cold metal. As he slung it over his shoulder, he noticed its length perfectly matched the inside span of his arm. It was then he realised how personal the gift was. He couldn’t help the warm glow inside that formed into a smile.

“What d’ya say Bram?” Merryweather asked. “Ready for the parade ground I’d say.”

“Well a weekend in the woods at least,” Bram replied, but Ethan still picked up the hint of admiration in his father’s voice. “Look’s like we’re all done here, thanks Frank.”

When they were outside, Bram placed his hand on his son’s shoulder. “I’m real impressed Ethan, and I know this ain’t easy for you. Maybe you don’t have to hunt today, but if we’re in the woods, you need to be armed. After all, I might need you to protect me from your mother if we get back too late.”

Ethan smiled, comforted and reassured as they turned and walked back to the aqua-green Chevy pick-up Bram called the General, gleaming as if it had just come from the showroom, despite being two years old now. More of Bran’s military leanings in evidence. The tires churned the dust on the road as they headed out of the town of Converse.

Bran couldn’t help the sigh of relief once they cleared the town. The trail to the hunting ground was just north of Skull’s Crossing, and there was no turning back as they passed it. Ethan appeared to have accepted his lot for the weekend, occasionally making furtive glances at the rifle case in the back.

“So you’re going to be my spotter today, letting me and the other fellas know when there is game coming our way. If you want to bag something yourself you can, but there’s no pressure,” Bran stated.

“I only want to spot. We should eat what we kill and yours will be enough,” Ethan replied.

Bram was somewhat taken aback. This was the first time Ethan had explained his reluctance to hunt so poignantly, and Bram had to admit he was a little impressed.

“So is it trophy hunting your against?” Bram enquired.

“Yes!” Ethan exclaimed. “I’m not a vegetarian Dad, I just don’t like shooting things for fun. That’s how you identify serial killers you know?”

“Your books tell you that?” Bram exclaimed with a smile.

“No, just watching you and your friends,” Ethan laughed.

“Well I have to admit I’m a little impressed and relieved,” Bram replied. “I think that’s a pretty admirable attitude.”

He sat back and they both enjoyed the mutual silence until they rolled up to the hunting ground. Bram’s usual hunting buddies and their dogs were already there and waiting for them. The hounds barked eagerly as they got out of the truck and walked over. They all walked together a little way into the woods, stopping every now and then to note the deer tracks. The others made admiring glances to Ethan’s new rifle and he showed it off with pride whenever asked. Soon they came to a deer stand at the edge of a clearing that bordered the woods. Bram checked the radio worked whilst Ethan climbed the ladder and got into position, then he followed him up.

“All set Ethan?” Bram asked.

“Yeah Dad. I can’t see the next stand where you guys’ll be though.”

“That’s what the radio’s for. Let us know if anything is heading our way.”

Ethan watched his Dad wave back at him before he and the others disappeared along the trail. He waited for some time before pulling out the book he had smuggled in his bag. ‘Anti-intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter. It was brand new. He settled into the seat and began to read.

After about an hour, he looked up. He felt cold and tense. He put the book down and pulled out a pair of binoculars from the bag instead. It was then he realised what was making him so uncomfortable. The woods were completely silent. He lifted the binoculars to his eyes and began to scan the tree line. The snap of a twig to his far right made him spin round to find its source. As he adjusted the focus, he found something crouched there. A dark form, with fierce amber eyes. He couldn’t help the shudder he felt as the thing stood up on two legs that curved backwards at the knee like a dog’s. As it took three fast steps towards him and the deer stand, it’s long snout quivered and its lips curled back to reveal gleaming white fangs. Ethan was in no doubt it was looking right at him. He fumbled for the radio in a panic.

“Dad, Dad, come in! It’s Ethan. There’s something here, something horrible. It looks like a wolf, but…”

“Ethan calm down!” came Bram’s booming reply. Ethan could tell immediately his father was embarrassed by his panicked voice. “It’s probably just a coyote. Might explain why it’s been so quiet this morning.”

“No Dad, this isn’t a coyote. I don’t know what it is. Oh God, it’s moving closer. Dad, it’s coming, it’s…”

Bram stared at the radio in his hand, his son’s voice replaced by high pitched static. He was startled by the sound of a gunshot that came from the direction of Ethan’s deer stand. There was another, then another. Then silence. Nothing stirred.

Bram bolted, grabbing his rifle and running down the trail. He only looked back when his companions found their dogs unwilling to follow, digging their heels into the ground and baying mournfully as the angry hunters pulled with all their might on their leashes. He didn’t wait for them.

He came to a sudden halt as he turned the corner. He could see the stand was empty. Ethan’s rifle lay abandoned on the ground close by. The empty brass shell casings were scattered in the leafy brush. He dashed past the stand into the clearing and stopped. Only the heavy thud of his heart sounded in his chest as he met the gaze of the creature in the tree line. It’s wolf-like ears were held high, pricked and pointed in his direction. Fiery eyes watched him with unblinking tenacity. But it was the snout that made him recoil in horror. A wicked, twisted thing that seemed to form a sneer. The creature was semi-crouched, shrouded by the shadow of the trees, but he could still make out what it held in its arms. Ethan, pale and bloodied, eyes closed. The creature took a single step backwards and disappeared into the maze of brush.

The dogs could not be forced back down the trail, and it was only the press of night and the threat of darkness that eventually encouraged them to break for the cars. The men returned with flashlights and searched the forest, but to no avail. Police and forest rangers arrived, but their dogs and horses also refused to enter the trees. Throughout the night, the woods remained silent under the gaze of a full moon.

It was the following day that Bram stumbled upon the creek. The mist of the early morning had not yet lifted, but he still noticed the colour. Blood red. As he knelt down beside the water, he wept, knowing Ethan was lost to him. He jumped to his feet as he heard a whispered message, the voice of his dead son, coming from the creek.

“Eat what you kill,” it said.

~

I hope you liked this little fictionalised adventure into a famous cryptid encounter. If you like unknown creatures and scary stories, and fancy something a little longer, I write novels too. You can find a link to my book Shadow Beast below.

https://t.co/mwC6dyn0Kj

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The Daughters of the Darkness – Prologue

As I edge past the 74,000 word mark on the upcoming sequel to Shadow Beast, it is becoming clear that unfortunately, despite my best efforts, The Daughters of the Darkness may well not hit the shelves before Christmas as planned. The one thing I definitely learnt though in launching Shadow Beast was not to rush. I will continue working away, editing, proofing and amending until things are ready to go. Please bear with me, it won’t be much longer I promise!

In the meantime, travel back with me seven years to Tsavo, Kenya, the historic home of the infamous man-eaters known as The Ghost and The Darkness.

If you haven’t read Shadow Beast, there are no real spoilers here apart from the historical event from Thomas Walker’s past it depicts, which I don’t think will upset the story for you a great deal. Hopefully it will leave you thirsty for more! But for now, in relatively raw form, may I present the prologue to The Daughters of the Darkness.

~

TSAVO, KENYA, EAST AFRICA – SEVEN YEARS AGO

Amanda Walker woke with a start, sitting up in her sleeping bag and instinctively reaching for the Gurkha Kukri blade she always kept under her pillow. For a few seconds she sat completely still, trying to ascertain what had woken her. Her first thought was that a snake had decided to curl up in or near the sleeping bag. It wouldn’t be the first time. When she couldn’t detect any movement, she relaxed a little and began to listen.

The door of the canvas tent was still tied shut. There was a soft breeze and she could hear the song of crickets carried on it. Then she heard it. Soft murmurs, coming from outside. She looked over at her husband Thomas. Even in his slumber he looked exhausted. She turned up the collar of his shirt to cover the insect bites on his neck. He had fallen asleep in his clothes almost as soon as he had returned from the day of tracking. She smiled to herself and affectionately ran her fingers through his hair. She decided to let him sleep. She could sense it was still dark outside and he had another long day ahead of him. They had heard the man-eaters calling close to the camp during the day.

She pulled the mosquito net up and crawled to the door flap of the tent. She undid the top tie whilst yawning silently and peered out. She could see the camp’s outbuildings across the way, but no lights were on in the windows. Nothing seemed to be stirring. Then she heard the murmur again. Standing on the veranda of one of the buildings was a little boy. His skin was incredibly dark, showing up the blue and mauve tones of the night sky above him. He was completely naked and held his hand over his mouth. He seemed to be crying.

As Amanda undid the tent flap completely, the boy immediately noticed her. As she watched him streak out of the camp, she realised straight away he wasn’t one of the children that lived with the hired help and staff. He moved with absolute silence, his feet hardly touching the bare earth as he ran. The moon was full and cast a bathing light onto the day scorched ground. Amanda couldn’t help her curiosity and stepped out of the tent, taking a few steps in the direction the boy was headed. She hesitated. She knew Thomas would be angry if he knew she had left the tent during the night. All the better reason to let him sleep she decided.

She had also fallen asleep in her clothes, sporting nothing more than a khaki vest top and a pair of bush shorts. She began to follow the little boy. The red dust began to stick to her bare feet and the ground was still warm from the baking heat of the day. She crossed the road that led into the camp and stood for a moment as she looked out over the long grass that stretched out in front of her. Thomas really would be angry at the thought of her going into the grass without a gun or an escort. But she could see the path the boy had taken and now she was growing concerned. She had already imagined the possibility the boy was from a local village, where maybe the man-eaters had attacked. What if he came for help? Amanda thought. She pushed on into the long grass.

She moved carefully and quietly, pushing the brush aside and listening intently with every step. She could barely see over the top, so instead she crouched and followed the path the boy had made, peering ahead.

“Kito,” she whispered softly, “kito?”

The Swahili word was often used affectionately by mothers to children. The literal translation meant ‘precious one’. Amanda had considered the boy was so young that he may never have met a white person, and her appearance may have startled him. If he heard her speaking softly and in Swahili, he might stop running.

The moon was directly above her, making her long blonde hair look silver in the strange light. Somehow it made her feel alone and exposed, and she shivered with the cold she suddenly felt. Instinct overrode her and the hairs on the back of her neck stood on end as she reached the abrupt end of the trail. The boy had seemingly disappeared into thin air. The tall grass ahead of her swayed silently in the wind, moving back and forth as if caught in the breath of some invisible giant beast. She crouched, spinning on her heels to face the direction she had come from. She began to tremble as she closed her eyes and listened as the crickets stopped singing one by one until there was silence.

For a moment, she couldn’t bring herself to open her eyes. She gritted her teeth and blinked, peering out into the grass around her. At first, she didn’t see anything. Then a pair of amber eyes flashed somewhere in the black undergrowth, then another. More eyes, like burning coals in the darkness, appeared over to her left. Even in her fear, she was amazed at the pride’s ability to work together in silence and in the gloom. She could feel them closing in on her. She estimated them to be no more than twenty yards away and they were obviously hunting. She was in no doubt what, or rather who, the prey was.

She decided she had only one chance. The camp was three hundred yards ahead of her, beyond the long grass and across the road. She leapt upwards, her bare feet tearing into the ground violently as she sprinted through the grass. The greenery around her seemed to ripple with tawny coloured flashes of flesh. The lions began to call to each other quietly, emitting little coughs and grunts that came from both sides. She knew they were verging in on her, attracted by her flight and the noise she made as she ran. Her muscles burned as she willed herself faster.

She could now see the road and she felt a momentary swell of relief. She was going to make it. She knew the lions would at least hesitate before they broke cover, giving her the few seconds she needed to make it into the camp. She decided anyhow that she was close enough to start screaming and raise the alarm. She opened her mouth just as the silhouette passed in front of her. She found herself suddenly stunned and winded as she was knocked to the ground. A large, pale coloured paw pushed her face into the dust, stifling the scream that waited to burst from her lungs. It had been the perfect ambush. The big female had always been behind her, waiting for the rest of the pride to drive Amanda into her waiting jaws.

The animal snarled at the unwelcome human scent of the still squirming prey. It opened its mouth wide and bit deep into the back of Amanda’s neck. She kicked out a few times in her violent death throws as she asphyxiated, then her body went limp as her windpipe was crushed and the nerves at the top of the spinal cord were cut off. As the big female began to feed, the other members of the pride drew close, waiting their turn to feast.

~

Shadow Beast is out now in paperback and on Kindle.

Buy it here

Wolf’s Bane

An acrid odour gripped the room. The scent of death and decay were ripe, but darkness offered a shroud for the unspeakable horrors within. Quelling an intense sense of rising panic, Marcus fought to keep his nerve, his hands shaking as he shone his old torch into the impending gloom. The odour was getting worse, not of damp or mould, but a scent so vile that his stomach churned. Old floorboards groaned as he moved cautiously, testing to see whether it would hold his weight. Spiders scuttled in every direction as he probed deeper into a room that repelled him on every level.

The light from the torch began to fade, the beam failing to reach deep into the corners, but enough to send the fattest of rats scurrying from the invading light. Sweat dripped a trail down his neck. He felt chilled to the core and suddenly, with the last flash of light from his torch, his vision fixed, he stumbled backwards, fear gagging his reflexes. His strangled scream became a whimper as his weight took him off keel. He fell, hands outstretched, eyes enormous, his head splitting open like a shell on contact with the floor. His blood began to drip through the gaps between the floorboards to the room below. Darkness consumed him.

The creature knew this room. The overpowering saturation of scents made it giddy and it licked its lips with hungered excitement. It sniffed at the fresh blood on the floor, recognised its source and moved past, heading towards the ramshackle door at the back that led onto the moors. This room within the old shack held trophies, but no fresh meat.

The night air was cool. The breeze was light, but carried the information it needed. It loped along low to the ground, following Marcus’s musk, a blend of cheap aftershave, sweat and grime. It growled in frustration when it reached his car at the top of a track. It clawed its way round the metallic shell and stopped at the back. It investigated the tracks the tyres had left in the dry dust of the August heat. Its night vision was perfectly adapted, seeing the world in sepia tones of brown and gold. It began to follow the tracks and as it rounded the bend, frightened a deer that hadn’t heard its approach. For a moment it gave chase with a few excited bounds, then control returned and it headed back to the trail as it suppressed the predatory instinct. Tonight was about a far greater hunt.

At the foot of the trail the creature found the main road and became more wary than before. But its mind was set. It noticed the turn the tyres had made into the trail and smelt the rubber as it had bit into the tarmac. The direction from which Marcus had come was clear. It stepped across the empty road and worked its way into the grassy verge, disappearing from sight altogether. Its movement looked little more than a gust of wind at a casual glance.

The creature stopped and took a big sniff, raising its snout high into the air. Marcus had travelled with the window open. It raised its lips in a terrible grin, exposing streaked yellow fangs and ghostly pink gums. It knew it was close.

It entered the small town as the full moon broke from behind a bank of clouds. It crossed a park, now following instinct as much as scent in these surroundings that seemed so alien yet somehow familiar. It froze as a nearby yelp caught its attention. It had been so set on its mission it hadn’t noticed the golden retriever until it was nearly on top of it. It sprang silently onto the big yellow dog, burying its teeth in its throat and yanking its head back to break its neck. It left the body behind a flower bed, growling with gruff pleasure as it heard the elderly owner calling for the canine.

It found its way to a quiet cul-de-sac. At its end sat a large house with an impressive fir tree in the centre of the front lawn. It kept to the shadows as it approached. It somehow knew this was its destination. It reached up into the fir tree with its clawed hands and lifted itself into the dense foliage. It climbed upwards until it found a branch that would support it and give a good view of the house.

Marcus had been here. His scent saturated the place, just like at the shack. It saw the open window and focused on it. A lighter scent, honey like and wrapped in soft tones of fruit and flowers wafted towards it. Saliva pooled in its mouth and dripped from its jaws as the plan formed. The muscles in its legs tightened like coiled springs. It sprang from the tree and barrelled through the open window, knocking the curtains aside and landing clumsily on the bed. The little girl squirmed underneath it, waking from a peaceful dream into a very real nightmare of fur and fangs. The scream was muffled by a heavy blow from the creature’s pounding limbs. It scooped her up and flung her over its shoulder. A light appeared below the door and it heard footsteps coming along the corridor.

This was brazen, and a new experience for the creature. It had never been inside a home before. It savoured the vision it had of the girl’s mother finding it in all its glory, her child clenched within its claws. But this was not the reckoning it sought, though it had killed people before. Marcus knew that, that’s why he had come to the shack finally. The favour was simply being repaid. Death was coming, but tonight was not the time and this was not the place.

The creature climbed from the window and jumped down to the lawn, hitting the ground running. It ran on two legs well enough but wasn’t as fast as when on all fours. It also risked being seen, but it almost welcomed the trail of breadcrumbs any such sighting would leave. It would have to be cunning, patient and above all perfectly placed if Marcus was to be lead to the discovery the creature desired.

It reached the outskirts of the town without incident, almost disappointed. As it crossed the open country, it took longer and faster strides now that there was less chance of an encounter with a human. The glow on the horizon let it know that its time was short as the inky blackness of the night began to fade. The blood red colour of the heather in this eerie light seemed to welcome and beckon the creature back to the moor.

It reached the shack and slipped inside. It dropped the girl against a kicked-in doorframe. It slashed her arm with a surgical swipe of its claws. The blood flowed onto her white and pink bed clothes, but it ignored this and let it soak the thin material. It turned and sat on the bare wood with its back facing her. It positioned itself in the mirror, adjusting its position so that it could see the girl behind it clearly. Now it waited.

It was the same mirror that Marcus had seen when he stumbled his way through the shack. It was the same one that had reflected his fading flashlight. It was the same one he had caught his reflection in as the change had begun. The creature ran its claws down the scar of the already healed wound from where the fall had split the skull. Finding the house would have been easier if the creature could access Marcus’s memories, but the creature and he were as separate as night was from day. It was only in the few moments of dawn and dusk, when night and day were one that the creature had become aware of Marcus. The human was less aware, less instinctive, less primal, but his arrival at the shack could only mean he suspected. The change was coming and the creature’s conscience began to fade, but it grinned a terrible smile one more time as it glimpsed the human emerging from beneath. He would see everything. Coming to the shack had been a mistake for Marcus, but at least he would no longer live a life of doubt. Werewolves did exist, and he was one.

Halloween

If you like what you’ve read, why not take a look at Shadow Beast, an even better read for Halloween!

https://t.co/4y3gJq8Phi

The Legend of One-Eye

When Peter Benchley wrote Jaws, he had no idea that he had literally created a monster. Not only did it become one of the biggest selling novels of all time, but it was made into a movie that became the first ever summer blockbuster, setting the trend ever since. What is interesting is that later on, Benchley became a committed advocate for shark conservancy, and stated that he would not be able to write Jaws based on what he had discovered about them since he first put pen to paper.

It’s important to realise that fiction is exactly that, fiction! Benchley also stated that he was no more responsible for people’s attitudes to sharks than Mario Puzo was for the mafia. Sharks do after all eat people, as do other things, whether we like it or not! In the real world man is the real monster, responsible for far more bloodshed and cruelty. But in our imaginations at least, nature has always been queen when it comes to our most primal of nightmares.

In Shadow Beast, another monstrous animal is at the heart of the story, as is my love of the Highlands and its amazing wildlife, including the endemic and endangered Scottish wildcat.

In the book you’ll find themes of conservation and re-wilding, but I wanted to do more than simply put these topics out there. I wanted to get behind them too. So with that in mind, I’ll be donating 15% of my February book sale profits to Wildcat Haven and the Save the Scottish Wildcat campaign. More details about their work can be found at http://www.scottishwildcats.co.uk

At the same time, I wanted to celebrate their work with some of my own, and I thought it would be a great opportunity to explore the origins of a character who makes a legendary entrance in the book. One-Eyed Tom, the wildcat.

Wild Cat, BWC0005

The Legend of One-Eye

The world around him was bathed in the sepia glow of a night-long twilight only his eyes could see. Two silent bounds took him to the edge of the stream, where a flick of his paw fished the unsuspecting frog from the water. There was no pause to play or pounce tonight, and he crunched and gobbled down the still wriggling amphibian in quick, successive bites. Every sense was on heightened alert. Even as he ate, he glanced with furious purpose in the direction of every sound his pricked ears caught.

He moved off, checking his path and surroundings every few steps. He stopped at a favoured mound of brown, dead heather to scent mark the border of his territory that ran along the stream. His face crumpled into a silent snarl. An intruder had crossed the path and left their own musk lacing the crumbly soil. The big tom sprayed the area liberally with urine, then meticulously rubbed the heather and ground with the scent glands in his cheeks. He scraped the damp ground into a mush with his back feet and continued on his path.

The piercing, single scream made him stop in his tracks. His head snapped to a path to the left, heading deeper into his territory. He knew the rabbit warren that the path led to, and he now realised the purpose behind the intruder’s insurrection. Such blatant disregard to his presence and home could not be tolerated. He turned onto the path, hunkering down as he made his way along it with silent, shadowy focus.

The sandy soil veiled his approach by absorbing his footfalls in noiseless padding. He approached the ridgeline and paused at its top. This was where he normally watched and waited for the rabbits to emerge into the dust-bowl clearing in front of him. The slight elevation and cover of the heather-lined ridgeline was the perfect ambush site. He could see where the intruder had launched from the same spot, and his eyes searched him out, knowing he was close.

His hardened stare came to rest on a crouched silhouette on the far side of the clearing. As the hairs in his ears fluffed and expanded to elevate his hearing even further, he picked up the sound of crunching, crushing teeth. Then the wind changed direction, and a cool breeze brought the scent of death and the younger cat to him.

He yowled his intent, unable to contain his rage any longer. He barrelled forward, growling and hissing as he covered the ground in rapid, rippling steps. His snarl was answered by a quivering, spitting growl of savagery. His adversary stepped out into the moonlight, boldly meeting his gaze. But the big tom could sense the hesitancy, reflected in the curve of the newcomer’s back and by the way he half-sat on his rear haunches.

The big tom growled, flicking his tail back and forth in a maddened fury against the ground. The yowl in his throat built to a scream. The younger, smaller male answered with his own caterwaul of threat. The two wildcats stood almost nose to nose, their fur bristling on end and their muscles taught and ready for combat. Each stared into the mirrored savagery before them. The time had come.

In a sudden moment of doubt, the young cat tried to dash past his adversary, but the big tom was too quick. He rammed the off-balance intruder with his shoulder and a butt of his head, his rear paws lifting off the ground as he rippled into a pounce that sent four sets of extended claws and his flashing fangs through the fur and flesh of his screaming opponent.

The younger cat didn’t hesitate to answer the assault, clasping the tom’s head in the vice-like embrace of its front claws. As the big tom punched and pawed repeatedly at the intruder’s back and stomach, his adversary twisted round and clamped his jaws over his muzzle, now in a position to also slash away at the exposed flank of the big tom with his hind paws.

They clung to each other, growling, hissing and snarling through a pain that only fuelled their fury. But a lucky scrape of the young cat’s hind leg sent the big tom spinning backwards, releasing the intruder from his fangs. The young male raced to the ridge and sank into its shadow, pausing at the top to glance and glower at the one whose territory it had invaded. The older cat had already turned his back, knowing he had won the fight. He now nosed at the dead rabbit, ready to claim his prize as victor. The intruder was overcome with renewed fury, and launched into the air, his front claws reaching out for a deadly embrace. The big tom whipped round in a fearsome frenzy, saw his opportunity, and leapt too. His fangs found the throat of the young cat and he used his bulk and might to bring him to the ground. The intruder writhed in silent revolt as the pressure on his larynx strangled the life from him. His forepaws and claws rained flailing blows on his killer’s head, but it was to no avail. A last, limp cuff slashed across the big tom’s left eye as the young cat’s world went black.

The wildcat grimaced and spat, rolling in the dirt with the pain. He screamed in fury, searching out the path by feel as he howled his way back to the stream, blinded by his blood and rage. The big tom slapped and sucked at the water, ducking his head under as he occasionally did to fish. After some time, the pain began to ebb, and he wandered away towards a favoured hollow to rest.

The creature slunk into the clearing and nosed the dead rabbit, before slumping down onto the sandy soil beside it. It casually skinned its meal with a few gentle tugs of its jaws, and it swallowed the meagre mouthfuls of meat it provided. It rose again and padded over to the dead wild cat, a distrustful growl rumbling in its throat. It had come across the smaller cats before as a youngling and knew their savagery and flickering charge all too well. It knew better than to tolerate their presence. It picked up the dead wildcat in its jaws and disappeared back into the shadow of the waiting forest.

~

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