Friday, November 06, 2015

Max Helsing and the Beast of Buck Hill

To celebrate the release of MAX HELSING AND THE THIRTEENTH CURSE next week in the US, I'm publishing a wee adventure featuring our eponymous teenage hero on my blog. "The Beast of Buck Hill" was a short story that originally would feature at the beginning of The Thirteenth Curse, where Max is wrapping up one of his previous adventures, a la Indiana Jones. With the tone and subject matter - WEREWOLVES - it was also a way for me to exorcise some demons having spent the last few years writing (and loving) the Wereworld series of novels. So what you get here is me putting the sword to the lycanthrope, at least for the time being. Hope you enjoy this advance peek into the world of Max Helsing, Monster Hunter...

The old man shook his head wearily in the drizzle. His bushy eyebrows were knitted in annoyance, face like thunder as his companion floundered. The boy's baseball boots slipped repeatedly, struggling for purchase on the treacherous incline. A khaki satchel swung around his shoulder, the kind one could hardly fit anything in. It bulged as if it might burst at any moment, threatening to throttle him as it caught about his throat. Utterly impractical in the wilderness, of course, as was the rest of the youth's attire. His skinny jeans were coated in mud, while his hoodie hung heavy with rain. The Chucks skidded through the quagmire again; only a deft lunge from the boy's closed umbrella saved him. Its metal tip sank into a clump of turf like a climber's pick, providing purchase as he steadied himself, dignity almost intact.
'City folk,' muttered the old woodsman.
'What's that, Mr Gelert?' asked Max, glancing up the slope, as he hauled himself onto firmer ground. The man made no attempt to approach and help him, remaining where he was, glowering with disapproval. With a sucking pop, the tattered old umbrella came loose from the wet earth, the boy shaking mud from its end with a deft flick.
'You always take a purse out with you?'
'Oh, this?' said Max, patting the satchel. 'It's my messenger bag.'
'It full o' messages then?'
'No, Mr Gelert,' said Max, climbing ever closer. 'That'd be my supper.'
'Who you plannin' on feedin'?' said the man, his thick accent coaxing a smile from Max. 'The five thousand?'
'Hungry work, hiking. My old man taught me to always be prepared.'
'Your old man a boy scout, eh?' asked the lumberjack.
'Something like that,' said Max, pausing to take in the view from the ridge.
The sun hung over the horizon to the west, a motley of fading colours coating the forest before it. A great shining rainbow arced through the Massachusetts sky, its pot of gold hidden somewhere within downtown Boston, ten miles to the north. It had always struck Max as odd that an area so apparently wild as Blue Hills Reservation could be sat right on his doorstep, so close to the city. He looked back over his shoulder. A barren landscape of grey rock rolled out about him, Buck Hill in all its grim beauty rising into the clouds. Black waves billowed through the gloomy air, squalls of rain riding the wind and rushing over them.
Max blinked, wiping the droplets from his eyes. Gelert chuckled.
'What's so funny?' asked the sodden youth.
'It's bad enough you bring a bumbershoot into the wilds, but then you don't use the darn thing! You simple or something, boy?'
'Oh, the umbrella? I thought I'd wait until I really needed it.'
'You're a drowned rat!'
'This?' said Max. 'Just a shower, Mr Gelert. Now tell me: whereabouts was this campsite? Have we far to go?'
'Where the hawthorn stands,' said the backwoodsman, pointing a gnarled finger a few hundred yards beyond them. Max could see the twisted black tree clinging to the ridge, buffeted by the harsh winds.
Max set off, not waiting for the old man. A hand caught him across the shoulder, crooked fingers digging through the sodden hoodie and into his collar bone. Gelert's mouth was at his ear instantly, the grating voice causing Max to flinch.
'Might wanna let me lead the way, boy. One wrong step and you'll be done for. You're paying me to be your guide. Let me get you where you're going in one piece.'
Max tugged his shoulder free. He looked about. The drop was indeed terribly sheer, the precipice path falling away into swirling mists. He gestured ahead.
'Lead on, Macduff.'
The woodcutter was on his way again, muttering under his breath. Max followed, shadowing every step.
'They say there's a monster that haunts Buck Hill, Mr Gelert.'
'Who's they then?'
'Local legend tells of a beast that wanders the woods and trails, preying on unwary travellers.'
'You'd best be careful then, eh?'
'I'm always careful,' said Max.
'You picked a queer time of day to come snooping out here, lad.'
'Snooping's an odd choice of word, Mr Gelert.'
'I say it as I see it. You should've come when the sun was up, not at twilight.'
'I do some of my best work at dusk. When it's stormy. And cold. And I'm wet through.' Max grinned, but his eyes remained fixed upon the terrain, scouring the barren incline. 'You must see quite a few tourists up here?'
'In tourist season, aye,' replied the man without looking back. 'But in fall? Nothing pretty up here, just sheer cliffs, sucking pits and no-see-ums.'
'Midges that'll drink you dry, boy. Most folk who find themselves up here these months tend to be lost. Like your friends.'
'My what now?'
'Your friends,' said Gelert. 'At the campsite.'
'Right,' said Max, nodding. 'And you were the last person to see them?'
'Like the newspaper said, they passed my hut around noon. I said hello as they went on their way. It wasn't until I was passing by a couple of days later that I found their campsite, tents abandoned. No sign of 'em at all. Not sure what you expect to find up here.'
'Answers,' said Max quietly.
'They're probably skiing in Banff or backpacking across Europe by now, darn students.' He looked fleetingly back at Max as he trudged on, his sour demeanour never far from the surface. 'Talkin' of students, how old are you, boy?'
'You look a lot younger.'
'Call it a curse.'
'Curse.' The woodsman grinned. 'Bit young to be at college, aren't you?'
'I'm gifted and talented.'
'So you say,' grumbled Gelert. 'Strikes me you're a long way from home for one so young. That father not worried about you?'
'My parents passed away.'
'Sorry,' grunted the old man, his voicing lacking all sympathy. 'You got nobody then?'
Max didn't answer, instead changing the subject. 'Funny thing is, Mr Gelert, those two hikers-'
'Your friends,' interrupted the lumberjack.
'Yeah, my friends. They aren't the only folk to have gone missing on Buck Hill.'
'That so?'
'That's so. Over the last four decades there have been numerous disappearances, each unexplained. I counted a dozen when I checked the local newspaper archives in Boston. You've been here all this time, Mr Gelert. Did you hear anything about them?'
The woodsman didn't answer, drawing ever nearer the twisted hawthorn as Max followed.
'They're spread out over enough time that they probably don't send alarm bells ringing. The police in Quincy certainly knew nothing.'
'Regular little detective ain't you, boy?' said the man, coming to a halt beside the tree. Rough, jagged bark covered its trunk, pitted by age and the elements. Gelert extended a bony hand out and gripped a branch. 'We're here.'
Max hopped past him, planting his umbrella point into the ground and leaning on it like a walking stick. He let his eyes rove over the area, searching out any clues. The campsite was set back from the cliff, the grey rock broken up by marshy ground. Raindrops peppered the brown pools as the downpour continued. If there had been any tracks, they were now long gone; Mother Nature had washed them off the face of the earth.
'Do you know if the police took their tents?' asked Max, his eyes still fixed upon the puddles before him. He heard a groaning, creaking sound at his back, causing him to turn.
He looked back just as Gelert let go of the hawthorn branch, the length of wood rocketing forward and catching Max sweet across the temple. By the time he hit the mud with a splash, he had already blacked out.
Two unusual noises brought Max back to consciousness. The first was the din of a steel band who had set up shop inside his skull, hammering their drums to their hearts' content. It was the lord of all headaches. The second sound was of Gelert tipping the contents of Max's messenger bag upon the ground. All of his belongings landed in a jumbled heap, as the woodsman shook the last articles loose with a clatter.
'What'cha got in here, then?' said the old man, clearly to himself. Perhaps he thought Max was still out cold. He flicked through an ancient looking leather-bound book, shaking his head.
'Gibberish,' he muttered, tossing it into the mud. Max winced to see Urgo's Grimoire treated so disrespectfully. That was an exceedingly old book.
The sun had fled the sky, black clouds billowing overhead. The rain might have ceased, but an awful portentous feeling had settled over the mountain. It was quiet, far too quiet, the only sounds coming from the old lumberjack. Max slouched against the hawthorn tree, hands bound by cord at his back, battered umbrella at his feet. He let his fingertips play against the wrist bindings, his hands moving carefully, silently finding a way to free himself. This had gone pear-shaped in quite spectacular fashion.
'You woken up then, Sleeping Beauty?' said Gelert, without looking across. Max sighed, all hopes at subterfuge gone.
'Please leave my belongings alone, Mr Gelert.'
'Still being polite, boy, even when in dire straits? I'll say this: you may've lost your folks, but someone brought you up right. Nice to see respect in the youth of today for once. I judged you as a wrong'un when I saw you at my door in that hoodie.'
Max's eyes narrowed as he watched the fellow rifling through his belongings. 'Appearances can be deceiving.'
'Can't they just!'
The woodcutter clapped his bony hands gleefully, tearing the foil wrapping off the most enormous - and still warm - pork pie. Max's heart sank. He had been looking forward to that for his supper. The steam rose off it as Gelert took a bite, the meaty juices dribbling down his jutting chin.
'That's a good pie, boy. Not bad as an appetiser.'
Max winced. 'Appetiser?'
Gelert looked over at the bound boy. He licked his withered, gravy-stained lips, bushy eyebrows furrowing where they joined in the middle. Max nodded, the puzzle falling into place like tumblers in a lock. He had been foolish, rushing in blindly. If he'd just waited for Uncle Jed to meet him back in Quincy instead of stepping out alone, this could have been avoided. Put it down to a desire to impress and the impulsiveness of youth. Max rather fancied it was his inexperience that had got him in this mess. And what a mess it was.
'You heard me right, boy,' said the woodsman, his voice deeper, more guttural now. 'Appetiser.'
As he spoke, Gelert grabbed the thermos flask that had tumbled from Max’s bag, unscrewing the lid with a spin. He peered inside suspiciously.
'I wouldn't do that if I were you,' said Max. 'You won't like it.'
'That so? You're in no position to tell me what to do!'
Gelert took a great swig from the flask, before spitting half the contents back out across the grass.
'Herbal muck!'
'I did warn you,' said Max, his hands working behind his back.
'What's wrong with a strong black coffee?' exclaimed Gelert, wiping his tongue across his jacket sleeve. The old woodcutter straightened himself, towering over Max. 'City folk. Coming up here with their fancy ways and flowery teas. When will your kind learn: you ain't welcome! This is my land, boy. The Blue Hills are mine.'
Max spied a glow in the heavens behind the lumberjack, slowly growing in intensity behind the thick cloudbank. Spittle frothed on the old man's lips as they peeled back in disgust, his ire fixed upon the boy.
'You're like a sprat swimming into a shark's mouth, thinking it a cave. You come out here, looking for your friends, only to walk right into the same fate they did. Idiot. I'm looking forward to this. A man spends most of the year living on mutton, it's nice to spice up the diet occasionally.'
He snorted, his eyes now twinkling yellow, his skin darkening.
'Can't beat a fresh kill.'
'I have to say, I'd hoped it wouldn't come to this,' said Max, shaking his head sadly. 'I thought you could be reasoned with.'
The old man cocked his head, his breathing heavy and rasping. 'You say what?'
'There are places you could have gone to, communes for folk afflicted such as yourself. There's an island off Cape Cod that would've been perfect for you, if you'd wanted to go. They'd have looked after you. Taken care of you like one of their own, without hurting anybody. If you'd wanted to go.'
Gelert was growling now, shaking loose his jacket, plaid shirt tearing beneath. He kicked his boots off, one hitting the tree trunk above Max's head. The last thing Max had expected when he woke that morning was to be confronted by a geriatric backwoodsman performing a monstrous striptease, but life had a funny way of throwing curveballs.
'That's just it. You wouldn't have gone if I'd paid your boat fare, would you? You enjoy this too much. You don't want to be civilised. You want to be a monster. How can I reason with a killer?'
'What're you saying, boy?' snarled Gelert, his crooked yellow teeth catching one another, too large for his mouth. His body continued to darken, sinew and tendons creaking as his limbs changed shape. 'You know my secret?'
'Hardly a secret now, looking at the evidence. I knew the monster was out here, just hadn't figured it was you. I was slow getting there, but give me credit, I'm still relatively new to this monster hunting lark. A novice, if you like. I should've known your story was fishy when you claimed you'd said hello to those students. I suspect there isn't a hospitable bone in your body, Mr Gelert, human or otherwise.'
Gelert crouched uneasily upon lupine legs. Great black claws tore from his toes, shredded flesh discarded alongside his clothes. Dark hair grew rapidly, spurting in clumps across his body as Max heard the monster's bones cracking. With a sickening crunch Gelert's ribs expanded, threatening to punch their way out of his chest. With three huge gulps of air, his torso had doubled in size, coated in black fur.
'See, I looked a little further back than forty years. Census records show there's always been a Gelert living in these hills. But here's the strange bit: there's no record of any marriages down the years. I just assumed it was overlooked, missed by the authorities. I know you're remote up here after all. It only occurs to me now - trussed up like a hog - that there never were any other Gelerts, were there? I know your kind are... long-lived. Has it been just you all this time? Don't you play well with others?'
Gelert roared, the skin of his face splitting as canine jaws erupted, the air misting red around him. Sharp ears rose from his thick grey hair, twitching as they elongated with each shake of the head. Those yellow pupils glowed bright now, twin suns of burning evil, the eyes of a hungry predator. His hands flexed on either side of his monstrous body, hooked fingers twitching spasmodically and scraping against one another. The clouds parted at last, the man no more, the moon's magical glow bathing the beast in its eerie light.
Max's movements weren't so subtle anymore. His hands were shifting frantically behind his back, wrists straining as he rubbed the taut cord across the jagged bark. His eyes never left the monster as it threw its head back and howled at the night.
Then stopped.
The beast balled its fist and struck its chest, as if clearing a tickly cough.
'Heartburn?' asked Max.
An awful gurgle rose from the monster's guts, causing both beast and boy to stare at its belly in wonder. Again, the creature punched its breastbone, wheezing as it gasped for breath.
'Spot of indigestion?' Max paused for only a second before continuing sawing at his bonds.
'That, my furry friend, is why I suggested you didn't drink from my flask.'
The monster dropped to its knees, one hand clawing at the muddy earth while the other grasped at its throat. The beast's flesh seemed to swell, the fur rippling as huge lumps appeared beneath it. Within moments, its entire body was shuddering and shaking, its tongue lolling from its jaws, catching upon its teeth. Those yellow eyes were pitiful now, wide with horror as they looked down at the spilled flask.
'I'm with you, by the way, Mr Gelert,' said Max, finally cutting through the rope and getting his hands free. 'I love a good mug o' joe. Can't stand that herbal tea nonsense. But then, I hadn't intended to drink from that thermos. You clearly didn't recognise the smell in human form: perhaps you do now? That's wolfsbane. It was to protect myself with, to throw at the beast, should the need arise.'
Max rose stiffly, heart racing as the monster continued transforming. Its entire torso was bloated and swollen, getting bigger by the second, fur falling out in patches as pink flesh turned red. It was enormous now, resembling neither man nor beast, a gelatinous deformed blob. A terrible burning smell hit Max, catching in his throat.
'Wolfsbane will kill a man if ingested,' he said grimly. 'I dread to imagine what it's doing to your innards.'
The wobbling fiend let loose a furious cry, lurching forward from where it crouched. Its flesh shook, the skin splitting and hissing like a sausage in a pan. Max moved quickly, ducking to snatch up his brolly and raising it before him. He hit the catch and it sprang open, the boy hiding behind his shield like a Spartan warrior as the monster impaled itself upon the sharp point.
A great wet bang filled the air, a thunderclap that heralded a most hideous explosion. Max remained hunched as lumps of the dead monster, both large and small, spattered the earth around him. When the last pieces of flesh had finished falling, he rose gingerly, looking about the muddy campsite. The brown puddles now ran red, little left of the beast bar the odd, barely recognisable body part that littered the ground or hung from the hawthorn tree. The boy breathed a sigh of relief.
'Werewolves,' said Max Helsing, shaking the last pieces of Mr Gelert from his gore-slicked umbrella. 'Always be prepared.'