robertasher-longshanks

Longshanks
by Adam Casalino

Robert Asher was sitting up in a tree.  It wasn’t his idea.  Nor was it his idea to handle the awkwardly designed crossbow that was nestled against his shoulder.  He wasn’t a very good shot with the bow; after all, he had only practiced using it for a few hours before he got into the tree.  When he had to use a weapon, he preferred a gun.  Given the circumstances, however, that wouldn’t have worked; bullets don’t come in silver.

Asher shifted his weight in the blind.  The whole tree shook.  For a moment he questioned the wisdom of putting a man of his size twenty feet up an oak.  The hunter who had hastily instructed him on the matter assured Asher it was fine.  At that moment the detective wasn’t so convinced.

He had no way of consulting the old hunter, though: he had been eaten a day ago.

Pulling back his glove, Asher checked his watch.  In the thin gleam of the moonlight he saw that it was two o’clock.  His breath curled away like smoke, fogging up the watch face.  He let the glove fall back over it and looked out at the woods around him.

He was somewhere in the Appalachian Mountains.  Asher wasn’t certain where exactly; he had been moving for days and was sure he crossed state lines more than once.  All he was confident of was that it was night and there was a rancid smell in the air.

It reminded him of blood and feces.  The stench had been growing for the last hour.  Asher was no outdoorsman; he wasn’t familiar with the scents of nature.  But this was not a natural smell.  It was ripe and thick.  He could taste it on his tongue.  It was a smell he knew all too well.

The creature appeared, slowly moving down the slope.  Asher narrowed his eyes as he watched it move.  The creature clung to the ground like a spider.  Its arms and legs were splayed out, making it almost flat.  Asher didn’t believe something that was once a man could bend like that.

Head forward, it slunk from tree to tree.  Asher held his breath and listened.  He heard a low, snuffling sound.  It was searching for his scent.  Asher wondered how the monster could smell anything over its own stench.  But he knew that its sense of smell was preternaturally keen.  It could have picked Asher out from a mile away.

The thing paused by a tree only yards away.  The detective watched as the creature studied the trunk.  The large arms reached out, clamping onto the tree with both hands.  Its breathing grew louder as the creature exerted its strength.  With a crack, the tree broke in half.  Asher watched chunks of truck slide down the mountainside.  The thing hunkered down beside the shattered stump, almost gloating.

Asher laughed to himself.  “Showing off, you son of a bitch?”

The creature was almost at Asher’s tree.  He looked through the crossbow’s scope.  It reached a small clearing between the trees.  A sliver of moonlight broke through.  Pausing, it raised its snout to suck in the air.  For one brief moment, Asher could make out the hulking mass, its gangly limbs, and bristling coat of fur.  The werewolf’s head swung around as its red eyes fell on Asher.

He fired.

The silver bolt streaked through the air like a flash of lightning.  It sunk into the creature’s right breast, disappearing into the flesh.  Roaring in pain, it reared up on its hind legs.  Asher’s breath was caught in his throat as he took in the full height of the monster.

Stumbling a few steps, it collapsed.  Its final cry still echoed through the trees as Asher descended.  With the crossbow still in his hands, he approached the dead werewolf.  By the time he reached the corpse, it was already reverting to its original form.  Gray fur molted from the body, forming a shaggy halo around it.  The long, multi-jointed limbs contracted, shrinking in shape and size.

The silver arrow had burned as it went it.  Sometimes heat cauterizes, sealing a wound as fast as it makes it.  This was not that kind of heat.  The fury of the silver dart cooked the werewolf’s flesh, leaving bubbling, charred skin around the entry point.  The heat had spread across the creature’s chest, shoulder and right arm, leaving what would have been pink skin charcoal black.

It wasn’t the first werewolf the occult detective had seen.  Hell, it wasn’t the first he had killed.  But he never got used to it.  Seeing what was once a decent human being, bent and twisted, a wreck of a life, always bothered him.  It wasn’t natural, the work he had to do.  But there was no one else to do it.

He worried about the day when seeing the dead stopped bothering him.

The stench of the werewolf mingled with the smell of burnt flesh.  It was too much even for him.  He pulled out a handkerchief and covered his face.  With his other hand, he reached down and examined the dead man’s face.  It was frozen in a grimace, the bulging eyes rolled back to white.  His mouth gaped open, revealing a pale, gnawed tongue.  The man had long brown hair, and a three-day beard.

Standing up, Asher searched for his wallet.  Sticking a penlight in his mouth, he checked a photo given to him by the people who hired him.  It was a black and white portrait Joe Wilkes: the man who, as a werewolf, had terrorized a Pennsylvanian town.  The picture revealed an older man, with gray hair, blue eyes, with a thick scar that ran down his left cheek.

The man at his feet was not Joe Wilkes.

Asher cursed as he put away the photo.  He looked at the rising slope of the mountain and trees, half-expecting them to be filled with glowing eyes.  Turning back to the corpse, he prodded it with a boot.

“Who the hell are you?”

The man was mostly naked, with only a scrap of cloth covering his waist.  On closer inspection, Asher discovered the garment were the remains of a pair of trousers.  He searched the pockets.  Inside one was a weather-worn wallet.  It held nothing but a driver’s license.  The photo was of a younger–and far less tormented–version of the man lying before him.

“Sam Prouse,” Asher said, looking over the I.D.  “How’d you get mixed up in this?”

The detective looked at Sam Prouse as he tried to put the pieces together.

“Did you turn Joe or did Joe turn you?  Either way, this has gotten more complicated.”

The smells wafting off the corpse wouldn’t fade for hours.  Soon other things would come, attracted to the prospect of a free meal.

“Can’t leave you here, Sam.”  Asher discarded the wallet, but held onto the license.  Bending down, he grabbed the dead body and slung it over his shoulder.  Sam was lighter than he looked.  The corpse was already stiffening as Asher descended the mountainside in search of the road.

The path he followed was narrow, encroached on both sides by low-hanging trees.  He searched the sky for the moon, hoping it’d help light his way.  It was in the same place he had seen it hours ago.  His path turned a bend and he discovered a sheer drop.  Beyond it, a creek spilled from the heights above.  Further down, the path passed a flat nook surrounded with stunted trees.  A campfire was burning.  Asher approached it.

“That’s far enough, stranger.”

Asher had not seen the man.  Only his hand, stretch out in warning, was visible.  The detective stopped as ordered.

“I mean no harm,” he said.

The man shifted leaned into the light.  He was old, with white stubble and long hair.  His features seemed to change in the flickering firelight. One moment he looked Caucasian, the swarthy like an Indian.  But the eyes stayed the same, piercing and gray.  There was humor in them as he looked over Asher and the dead man he carried.

“You mean no harm?” the man said.  “I guess you just found him that way?”

“I mean no harm, to you,” Asher said.

“Are you a hunter?” the man asked, nodding to the crossbow.

“I guess you can say that,” Asher said.

“Hunting… men?”

“This wasn’t a man,” Asher explained.  “Not when I shot him.”

The man by the fire nodded back at him.  “So you hunt the man-beasts.”  He leaned forward again to stoke the fire.  “What do you call yourself?”

“My name is Robert Asher,” he said.  “I’m a detective from the city.”

“A detective comes to the mountains to bag a man-beast?”  The stranger slapped his knee and laughed.  “Now that’s a lark!  How does the city boy like the great outdoors?  Not quite what you expected, I wager.  Take a seat by my fire, sir, I want to hear your story.”

Asher slid the corpse from his shoulder.  He sat on a stump across from the man, keeping his crossbow in his hand.

“Who are you?” he asked.

“They call me Longshanks,” the man said.

“Not much of a name,” Asher said.

The stranger shrugged.  “I never knew why they started calling me that, but it’s as good a name as any.”

“Do you camp out here a lot?” Asher asked.

“Most of the time,” Longshanks said.  “Gave up on indoor living a long time ago.  I prefer the open air.”

Longshanks started fidgeting with something beside him in the dark.  Asher tightened his grip on the bow.  The man looked at him.

“Relax, city boy.  Not everything in the woods wants to kill you.”  He smiled as he presented a canteen and two cups.

“I took it off the fire to cool,” he said, unscrewing the cap.  “Chicory, if you like.  Must have for a long, cold night.”

He poured a steaming cup of the brown stuff and passed it over to Asher.  The detective sniffed the liquid.

“What else is in it?”

Longshanks smiled.  “Just a drop of bourbon.”

Asher warmed his hands against the cup and took a sip.  It was too hot to taste what was in it, but he was confident the man wasn’t trying to poison him.

“How do you keep safe out here, Longshanks?” he asked.

“You are a detective, aren’t you?” the stranger said.  “You ask many questions.”

“Force of habit.”

“I keep my distance from the dangerous things and they keep their distance from me,” Longshanks said.  “But I doubt you’re asking about the bears and the badgers.”

“No,” Asher said.  “I’m talking about the werewolves.”

The old man snorted and spat into the fire.  “I’ve seen my share of ugly in the wild.  Nothing as ugly as them.  There were a few that crossed my path, in the past.  Recently have they have return to these parts.”

“How recent?” Asher asked.

“In the last six months.”

“Have any idea how many?”

“I hoped it was only one,” Longshanks said, nodding to the dead man.  “But I heard howls and answering howls.  They were calling to each other or warning each other away.  Man-beasts aren’t friendly, even with each other.”

“How do you know you heard werewolf howls?” Asher asked.

Longshanks voice was low.  “You ever hear them howl?”

“Yes.”

“Then you know.  You can’t forget that sound.”

“When was the last time you heard them howling to each other?” Asher asked.

“Just this night,” Longshanks said.  “One was probably the bastard at your feet.”

“Surprised you haven’t been attacked,” Asher said.

“They try,” Longshanks replied, “but I’m good at disappearing.  Plus I’ve got this.”  He slowly drew a knife from his belt.  It was almost as long as Asher’s forearm, with deep serrations in the blade.

“You’ll have a hard time killing a werewolf without silver,” Asher said.

“This has killed plenty of animals,” he said.  “Man-beasts are no different.”

“Just try to keep away from them.”

Longshanks nodded to the corpse.  “What do you plan to do with that one?”

“Can’t leave it out here,” Asher said.  “I found an I.D.  Might try to find his next of kin.”

“They weren’t the ones who sent you after him?” Longshanks asked.

Asher shook his head.  “Wasn’t hunting him at all.”

“I see.  You’ll never get off the mountain with him on your back,” the old traveler said.  “Not without scavengers having their way.”

“What say you, then?”

“Burn it,” Longshanks said.  “Don’t want animals eating it.  At best it’ll poison them. At worst…”

“You know about werewolves,” Asher said.

“I told you, I’ve been around,” Longshanks answered.

“Any idea where the rest could be hold up?”

“These mountains are pockmarked with caves,” Longshanks said.  “Any number of good hiding spots.”

“Could you narrow it down?” Asher said.

The old man laughed.  “I’ll never get used to talking to city folk.”

Asher put down his chicory and gestured as he spoke.  “It would have to be a large cave, relatively dry.  Easy to get into and out of regularly.  Probably close to a road that runs into the nearby town, so they could grab fresh victims.”

For the first time Longshanks dropped the smile.  He looked surprised.  “Now who knows a lot about ’em?”

“I’ve been around too,” Asher said.

Longshanks scratched his face with a long finger.  “I know a place like you described.  Close to the road to Knollsville.  It’s a hike from here, though.”

“I’m ready to go,” Asher said.  “Can you take me?”

“Just one condition.”  Longshanks pointed at the dead body.  “Burn it.”

Longshanks put out his campfire.  He led Asher to a flat slab of stone where he helped the detective burn the corpse of Sam Prouse.  From there they followed a narrow trail from the heights into rolling hill country.  The mountains were a steep wall behind them, the ground ahead pitted with sudden drops and rising boulders.

Asher watched Longshanks as he walked a few paces ahead.  Despite his age, the man moved lithely.  His arms and legs were made of wiry muscle; his head bobbed with energy.  Occasionally he stopped, dropping to the ground.  He pressed his face close to the dirt, muttering something about signs.  Soon he was back on his feet.

The trees thinned out, revealing the moon, low in the sky.  It bathed them in pale, clean light.  It hadn’t seemed to move since Asher last checked.

“You’re following tracks?” Asher asked the man.

“Thought I saw a few, but they were old,” Longshanks said.  He threw his head back to glance at Asher.  “Good skill to have when you’re hunting.”

“Something animal-like about the way you do that.”

“Thinking I’m one of them, are you?”  Longshanks laughed.  “Explain that.”  He slapped his bare arm.  “Do you see fur?  I don’t know as much about man-beasts as you, but I know they can’t walk under a full moon and keep their skin.”

“Don’t take it personally,” Asher said.  “I’m naturally suspicious.”

“You really believe I was waiting up on that rock for you, city boy?” Longshanks said.  “I’ve lived in these mountains for years.  Didn’t know a you would pop up with a dead man on your arm.”  He cackled some more.

“I guess not,” Asher said.

“So what’s your plan?  Are you going to clear out all the man-beasts in one night?”

“Not if I don’t have to,” Asher said.  “I was hired by a family in Brownstone.  Lost their daughter to a werewolf named Joe Wilkes.”

Longshanks tsked and shook his head.  “Terrible thing to lose a child like that.  Did the girl turn?”

“No,” Asher said.  “Not enough left of her.”

“And what about that poor bastard we burned?” the old man asked.

“Was following Joe’s trail when I ran into him,” Asher said.  “He killed my guide about a day ago.  Sure hope there’s not a pack of ’em.”

They reached a bend in the path.  Instead of taking it, Longshanks jumped over the lip of the road, into a grassy ditch.  Asher glanced around before following.  He sunk into the underbrush and was nearly lost in the dark.  Vaguely he could make out his guide as he continued down the grade, moving back toward the mountain line.  When Longshanks spoke again, his voice was little more than a whisper.

“Creatures like the man-beasts, they spread like contagion.  Unless you burn them out.”

“You’ve encountered other ‘unnatural’ creatures?” Asher asked.

Longshanks snorted.  “These aren’t the first to seek shelter in my mountains.  Ghouls, banshees, blood-drinkers, even wendigos.”

“You’ve seen all that?” Asher said.

“M-hm, but they don’t see me.”

The ground sloped to a crevasse in the mountain wall.  Stretching twelve feet across and three feet high, it looked like the mouth of a sleeping giant.  Longshanks bent low to stick his head inside.  Asher came up beside him and waited.

“Something smells foul in there,” Longshanks said when he pulled his head out.  “Carcasses aplenty.”

“Worth a look,” Asher took out his flashlight.  “Do you have one of these, or can you see in the dark as well?”

Longshanks smiled and gestured to the cave.  “Lead the way.”

Asher cast his light into the opening before going inside.  Crouching down, he passed through the crevasse and entered the cavern.  The ceiling rose sharply, allowing the men to stand upright.  The ground curved down, as if they were standing on the edge of a great bowl.  Dirt and mud carpeted the cave floor.  A distant dripping echoed somewhere in the dark.

“Definitely something living in here,” Asher said, shining the light around.  He could smell the lingering remains of rotting flesh.  It mingled with the rising scents of earth.  There was, however, no hint of the distinct, werewolf stench.

Longshanks grunted.  “A pile of something over here.”  He pointed and started for a corner.  There was a mound of dirt, fur, and bone.  Asher’s light glinted off of something slick, like fresh blood.  He was about to tell Longshanks to hang back when a growl filled the cavern.  Longshanks looked back at him.

“That’s–”

The pile of carcasses exploded as a mass of fur and claws flew at the man.  Asher caught a glimpse of amber eyes as the thing landed on Longshanks.  The old man roared as he wrestled with paws large enough to remove his face.  Asher bounded for the tangled mass.  The creature jumped off Longshanks and collided with the detective.  He lost his flashlight as he was thrown across the room.  A great weight pressed on him as hot, rancid breath smacked his face.

A sharp whistle drew the creature’s attention.  It sprung around, leaping Longshanks.  There was the sound of metal slicing flesh.  Asher heard the beast collapse to the ground.  He got up, found his flashlight, and walked over to Longshanks.  The old man was cleaning his knife with a rag, shaking his head.

“No luck, city boy,” he said as he nodded at the animal.  “Just a plain, old mountain lion.  Big ‘un, though.  Surprised it could squeeze through that entrance.”

Asher cast his light on the dead cat.  Its mouth was agog in a look of shock.  Longshanks had cut open its belly, its intestines were pouring out.

“I guess we’re no closer to your man-beast,” Longshanks said.  “But that’s good skin.  We could split it, if you like.”

Asher shook his head.  “Have at it.”

He walked back to where he had fallen.  “I heard something when I fell.  An echo.”

“This whole place is echoing,” Longshanks said, his voice bouncing off the ceiling.

“It was coming from below.”

Longshanks let go of the cat and approached the detective.  They both walked over to the other end of the bowl-like room.  The lip of the floor came up, masking what was on the other side.  Bending down, Longshanks felt around the edge of the rim, clearing away debris that was kicked up from the fight.  Asher shone his light over the man’s shoulder, revealing the entrance to a burrow.

“Where do you think that goes?” Asher asked the old man.

“Could stretch for miles into the mountain,” he said.  “There’s no telling where it will lead.”

The detective bent down to get a better look inside.  “I don’t love crawling through caves, but I can’t leave until I find Joe.”

He smelled the air coming from the opening.  A familiar, stench burned his nostrils.  Asher stood up.

“He’s down there.”

He looked at Longshanks.  For the first time, the man seemed disturbed.

“Something wrong?” Asher asked.

“I don’t want to go down there,” he said.

“Why not?”

“I’m a man of the outdoors,” Longshanks said.  “I told you I left indoor life for the open.  Going deeper into this cave, ain’t my kind of thing.”

Asher tried to examine the man’s face for a lie. A lingering doubt had gnawed at the back of the detective’s mind since he met the stranger.  It was possible he wanted to keep Asher away from the werewolf den, in an attempt to protect his own.  He had to test him.

“Fine,” Asher said.  “You’re not obligated to help me.  I appreciate the tour.  You’re free to take your cougar skin and amble on out of here.  My path lies down there.”  He pointed to the burrow.

Longshanks fiddled with his knife.  He looked back at the dead cat and the cave exit just a few yards beyond.

“Dammit.”  He stuck his knife back into his belt.  “Move aside.  I can find a safe way down.”

“You’re coming?”

“Yes–shut up,” Longshanks said.  “I won’t have city boy show me up in my own home.  Just keep that light over my shoulder so I can see.”

The tunnel dropped at a steep angle, roughly six feet, before it evened out.  The men had to walk slightly hunched over, but the burrow was wide enough for them to move abreast.  Asher listened for sounds of movement ahead of them.  Other than the shuffle of their feet, it was silent.  The stench of werewolf grew until it clotted the air.  The detective was forced to again hold a cloth to his face.  Longshanks didn’t seem to mind.

After twenty minutes they came to a fork in the tunnel.  A smaller burrow snaked away to the right.  Longshanks crept over to it and took a deep draught of fresh air.  A trickle of moonlight washed over his face.  Silently, he moved back to Asher.

“Might wanna get one last gulp of clean air,” he said.  “Leads up.  Too steep for a normal animal to use, though.”

“These aren’t normal animals,” Asher said.

Soon after they came to a bend in the tunnel.  Both men had the instinct to wait and listen.

Something was moving up ahead.  The steps were echoing through a large space, like another cave.  A grumbling voice bounced off the walls.  Asher could hear it picking and scratching on the ground.  The noises were accompanied by the soft snap and pop of a fire.

“We can wait til sunup,” Longshanks whispered.  “Be real easy to get ’em then.”

Asher shook his head.  “Who’s to say there’s not another way out?  Besides, this night’s been stretching on far too long.”

Longshanks grunted.  “So what do you wanna do?”

He unslung his crossbow, loading one of the silver bolts.  Asher nodded at Longshanks’s belt.

“I’ll lead,” he said.  “Let me try to get a shot off first.  If I miss, put that knife to good use.”

Holding the bow at the ready, Asher turned the corner.  The passage led into a round cavern.  At the far end burned the fire, its smoke seeping up into a crack in the ceiling.  Pieces of human corpses hung from knots in the wall.  One was a man, his left side flayed open exposing muscle and tendon.  There was a woman, stripped naked and missing her legs.  A small, mauled corpse must have once been a child.

Asher kept his back to the wall as circuited the room, searching for his target.  Longshanks hung back, using his size to block the exit.  The detective caught movement by the fire.  He aimed his bow.  The emaciated figure that came into view was Joe Wilkes.  He was naked, except for a shredded pair of jeans.  Crouching on his legs, he gnawed on a femur and stared into the fire.

“Hello, Joe.”

The man started.  He moved away from Asher toward the exit, freezing when he saw Longshanks.  Jumping back to the corner, he kept the fire between him and the others.

“Who–who are you?” Joe said.

“My name’s Robert Asher,” he said.  “I’ve been sent to kill you.”

Joe stayed low, his arms on his knees.  “Oh yeah?”

“You’ve been causing a lot of trouble, Joe,” Asher said.  “It’s gotta stop.”

“I know it,” Joe said.

“What are you doing?” Longshanks hissed.  “Just shoot him.”

Asher silenced the other man with a hand.

“You got one chance,” Asher said.  “Surrender and we’ll bring you in, in one piece.  Let the law decide your fate.  Or, my friend and I will put you down right now.”

Joe sneered at the fire.  “Why even give me an option?”

“I was sent to kill a werewolf,” Asher said, “not a man.    Care to explain why you’re in your normal skin?”

Joe bit down on the bone.  “It’s this cave.  I’m far enough away from, from the moon.”

Longshanks took a step toward the detective.  Asher could see from the corner of his eye the large knife, pointed at Joe.

“Joe do you know Sam Prouse?” Asher asked.  “Ran into him earlier tonight.  You have a lot in common.”

Joe fidgeted but said nothing.

“How many more are out there?” Asher asked.

The man stayed silent.

“Answer him, fool!” Longshanks said.  “Or by God, you’ll be sorry.”

“I don’t know how many more are out there,” Joe said.  “Sometimes I only get a bite before they run away.”

“Do they come here?” Asher asked.

“This is my place,” Joe said.  “I don’t bother with the others.”

“Geezus,” Longshanks said.  “We don’t even know how many are out there.”

Asher sighed.  “Joe, I can’t promise what will happen to you if we bring you in.  But you know this can’t keep going on.”  He waved at the macabre decorations of the cave.

Joe grumbled, fingering the now clean femur.

“They’ll just kill me.”

“Probably,” Asher said.  “But it’s better than living like this.”

Longshanks had enough.  He stormed over to Asher, grabbing him by the collar.

“What are you doing, city boy?  You think you can reason with that thing?”

“He’s a person, Long,” Asher said.  “At the very least he should be given the chance to surrender.”

The old traveler shook his head.  “Don’t be fooled by that–that skin.  He gave up his humanity long ago.  The monster’s just hiding underneath.”

He marched over to Joe, getting only as close as the fire.  “Isn’t that right, beast?  You’re just waiting for us to turn our backs.”

“Long, that’s enough,” Asher said.

“I know your kind,” Longshanks continued.  “You killed everyone I ever loved.  Took my home away from me.  You’ve polluted my mountains, haunting my every step.  You won’t be satisfied until every living soul is dead.  Isn’t that right?  Isn’t it!?”

Joe looked up, a throaty growl escaping his mouth.  He lunged over the fire, his limbs stretching, his face extending into a snout.  The detective threw himself at Longshanks, knocking him out of the way as the werewolf swiped.  Claws caught Asher’s shoulder, cutting through his leather jacket, but missing the skin.

Asher and Longshanks tumbled across the cave.  The detective hit the ground heavily, the crossbow bouncing out of his hands.  Its bolt dislodged, disappearing into the shadows.  A great, bristling face glowered down at him.  The werewolf opened its jaws, ready to strike.

“Back off, bastard!”

The monster looked up as Longshanks dove into it.  Asher watched as the knife sunk into the beast’s chest.  It howled as the old traveler forced it to the ground.  Their struggle was short and terrible.  Longshanks had only enough time to drag the knife down the length of the creature’s belly.  The werewolf acted fast.

With its massive jaws, monster clamped onto Longshanks’s neck.  The muzzle enveloped the man’s neck, shoulder, and upper chest.  Longshanks screamed as his hands released the knife.  The werewolf jerked its head back, sending the man flying through the cave.  He collapsed in a bloody heap.  Even with its intestines spilling onto the floor, the monster stood and bounded for the traveler.

Asher ran across the cave and recovered his crossbow.  He removed a spare dart from the stock and prepared it load, as the werewolf turned to notice him.  The monster croaked and ran for the detective.  Asher dropped the bow.  Holding the silver arrow like a dagger, he met the charging beast.  With one brutal thrust, he drove the dart into the werewolf’s eye.

Dropping to the ground, Asher rolled clear of the monster.  The silver dart sizzled like a brand, consuming the werewolf’s face.  The fire spread down its neck and chest.  Its final screams of pain echoed through the cave like thunder, forcing Asher to cover his ears.  In a moment it was over. Joe Stern lay dead at his feet.  Most of his upper body was a blackened ruin, his head, chest and limbs charred to a crisp.

By the time Asher reached Longshanks, he was hardly breathing.  Most of his body was soaked through with blood, his neck and shoulder mangled beyond recognition.  Asher knelt over him and tried to prop up his head.  Longshanks’s eyes fluttered open.  He grabbed Asher’s hand.

“You got him, city boy?”  His voice was weak.

“I got him.”

Longshanks tried to nod.  “Then get out of here. Your job is done.”

“I’m not going to leave you here,” Asher said.

“I’m dead, son,” Longshanks said.  “You know that.  Even if you could save me, I’d turn, sooner or later.”

“Goddammit, I knew that knife couldn’t kill it,” Asher said.

Longshanks smiled weakly.  “We all have our boasts.”  He suppressed a cough.  “Go.  More of those monsters are out there.  Leave while you can.”

“You think I’m going to let them overrun your mountains?” Asher said.

The old traveler smiled.  “I know you won’t.”

Asher waited until Longshanks closed his eyes and stopped breathing.  Wrapping up the large man as best he could, he covered him with dirt and stones from the cave.  Rifling through Joe’s belongings brought up a wallet and old I.D.–proof that the man was dead.  Asher left the cave and made his way to the surface.

The long night finally broke.  The moon disappeared as the sun rapidly overtook the horizon.  The sky turned from inky black to bruised purple, then to gold.  A crisp wind swept across the mountainside, bringing with it the scent of fresh pine.  Robert Asher climbed through the brambles and found the road back to civilization.

The mountains slowly receded behind him.  He knew it wasn’t the last he’d see of them.