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Howling Ozarks

By Ethan Young All Rights Reserved ©

Romance / Horror

And He Looked, And Behold, There Was Death

Allen Shaw had been hunting and fishing since before he could speak.

Born and raised in the Ozarks mountains, he was as comfortable here in his deer blind as he was in his own living room. More to the point, he enjoyed the quiet solitude, which was the main reason why he had gone out hunting by himself. It was the first time he’d ever ventured out into the forest without his father or another adult to supervise him, and he delighted in it.

It had taken some convincing to get his parents to allow him out on his own, but after making numerous promises and concessions, he’d managed to persuade them. After all, Allen was no fool. He could handle a gun the way a captain could handle his ship, and after spending the better part of his life in remote places such as this, Allen knew more than enough to hunt safely. His parents knew this, and after copious amounts of wheedling and pleading, they’d relented and allowed their son to go hunting by himself for the first time in his life.

At fifteen, Allen was neither tall nor short but of average height. His skin was tanned by the sun, and his hair was dirty blonde, almost the color of wheat. His eyes were hazel, a trait that he shared with his mother. They sat above a strong nose, and his lips were full. Allen had an athlete’s build, though he didn’t play any sports and tended to dislike being the center of attention. His toned form was actually the predictable result of years spent hiking, swimming, and playing outdoors. As a person, he was not cold or impersonal but he was also content to leave the spotlight to those more suited to it. Others who knew him would describe Allen as being warm and friendly, but also as somewhat of an introvert and not prone to being very outgoing among other people his age aside from his small circle of close friends. 

Allen was of Ozarks stock, born and bred in one of the most remote parts of his state, though this did not mean that he and his family lacked for modern conveniences. Granted, there were certain trade-offs; the drive into town was considerably longer and the weather at such high elevations could prove treacherous. Snow was also more common here than in other parts of Arkansas, though that did not discourage the generations of people who called Stockton home. Nestled against the peaks of the Ozarks, it was a small town, almost small enough to be on a Hallmark postcard, and its unofficial center was the diner—though the restaurant itself was as much an institution as Ms. Janice, the woman who ran it. Allen had eaten there many times, both with his family, his friends, and by himself, and was certain that Ms. Janice’s cooking was the best gift that God had seen fit to give the human race. Last year he’d gotten a job working there, not because he needed or even wanted the money but he hated being bored. Allen got stir-crazy if he sat still for too long; he always liked to be doing something.

And he loved the fact that the mountain, with all their rugged beauty, were right in his backyard. He didn’t need to drive or fly somewhere if he wanted to go exploring. All he had to do was head out the back door and keep on walking. From an early age Allen had become enamored with the outdoors; he loved the Ozarks’ icy streams and verdant forests, and he knew many of them by heart. He also knew where to find the best camping spots, the best swimming holes, and where the best scenic views would be. Allen never tired of being out here, and in fact, he probably spent more time outside than he did at home. This was a place where he could get away from it all and be alone with his thoughts—for a little while at least.

The sun had set hours ago, and as ever, he was always awestruck by the beauty of the Ozarks at night. The stars glittered over the treetops, like diamonds pinned to the expanse of the cloudless black velvet sky. The wind blew gently through the leaves, its touch cool and comforting on his skin. The crickets were chirruping quietly in the grass, and somewhere off in the distance, an owl hooted. Overhead the moon shone like a silvery orb, bathing the mountains in its pale light and allowing Allen to see quite clearly without the need for a flashlight. 

He breathed in the sweet cool air and smiled. This was a good night for hunting.

A noise from the ground below him broke through his reverie, and he nearly jumped in his seat. Allen knew that sound as well as he knew the sound of his own voice. A lifetime spent in the outdoors had made sure of that.

The noise of leaves and grass rustling underfoot was unmistakable.

Allen sat up straight and brought the scope of his rifle to his eye. His finger was just brushing the trigger, ready to squeeze at a moment’s notice. Nervous sweat beaded on his forehead. His heart pounded, and he scarcely dared even to breathe.

Something stirred in the darkness. Twigs and branches bent and snapped.

Closer, now. Closer.

Allen felt his nerves growing raw.

“C’mon…” he muttered. “C’mon….”

There was another rustling of leaves and foliage, louder this time.

But then there was silence.

Allen nearly pounded the side of the blind in frustration, but restrained himself. If the animal was still around, a noise like that could scare it off.

His face split into a slow grin as an idea entered his head. Even if his prize had run off, there was a good chance that he could still track it. Provided it didn’t wander off too far, it wouldn’t be too difficult to pick up its trail on a night like this. The ground was soft and moist, and the weather was clear.

Perfect for animal tracks.

He waited a few more moments to make sure that his quarry hadn’t lingered. When all was quiet again, he shouldered his rifle and threw a rope ladder over the side of the deer blind. It swayed slightly as he descended, and his rifle was held ready as his boots hit the earth with a dull thump.

He noted that the crickets had stopped chirping. Everything was now eerily silent, and it unnerved him in a deep and profound way. Things rarely ever got this quiet. It seemed as though the mountains were holding their breath in fear or anticipation of events to come.

The hair on Allen’s neck began to stand on end, and he had a sudden, horrible and entirely distressing feeling that something was watching him. The first stirrings of real fear coiled in his belly, making his blood run cold. The forest that had seemed as comforting and familiar as an old friend had become a place of terror.

Something…was stalking him. He didn’t know how he knew, he just did. There was danger here, and he had to get home, or back up in the deer blind, or...

But all thoughts of escape vanished as something unseen began to growl.

It started out as a low, menacing rumble, like distant thunder beyond the horizon, but in seconds it had risen in volume to become a feral, guttural snarl. He couldn’t tell the direction it was coming from. The noise seemed to be everywhere!

Something, something big, moved in the trees behind him. Despite his terror, Allen forced himself to turn and look. He had to know what he was facing. He had to know what was hunting him.

The first thing he saw was its eyes.

They blazed with the color of freshly spilled blood, as red as the sky at sunset after a heavy rain, and he froze, rooted to the spot with horror. They ensnared him like a serpent, and he was suddenly unable to move, his heart beating like a drum within his chest. Another loud snarl—a noise emanating from a deep and cavernous chest—shook the leaves on the trees, and then the owner of those burning eyes lumbered into the moonlight.

All hope left him.

At first glance it looked like a wolf, but in the way a Velociraptor looks like a bird: similar design, very different outcome. It almost appeared to have the body of a man, albeit covered with fur, and it stood like a man on two feet, but its face…

Its face sported a muzzle too wide to belong to anything natural, brimming with gleaming fangs and drooling saliva. Two ragged, pointed ears adorned either side of its brutish face. Instead of paws, its arms ended in a bizarre, disturbing amalgam of paws and human hands, tipped with razor-sharp talons, and its nightmarish head sat on huge, broad shoulders. Its enormous girth was supported by two legs that stood like mighty oak trees, and behind it was a thick, bushy dark tail. Allen couldn’t say whether it looked too big or too tall, too wide or too squat, but it just looked…wrong. Everything about looked and felt wrong, exuded mindless hunger and cold, animal cunning, and sent every cell of Allen’s body screaming at him thathis death was here.

It lowered its brutish head and shifted its weight with unholy grace, and he gripped his rifle more tightly. Its entire body was covered in shaggy black fur, but its coat was soot-black and had no luster whatsoever.

Allen could not run. He could not scream. All he could do was stand there and look at this thing.

It loomed over him, casting a shadow that seemed large enough to cover the world. Overhead, the moon looked on as if in anticipation, and for a moment Allen could swear that he could see a face there laughing in mockery.

Years of training and experience took over, and he moved before he even really knew what he was doing. He brought his rifle to bear and fired a shot almost point-blank into the monster’s huge, hairy chest, the blast echoing off the mountainside and sending birds squawking from the trees. Blood sprayed as the round hit home, punching a hole through flesh and bone.

And yet, strangely, that didn’t seem to slow the creature down very much. It looked down at where the bullet had hit, at the blood gushing onto its fur, and then looked Allen in the eye and let out a roar of fury and rage so pure that it was painful to hear.

Then it moved in a blur.

By the time his brain had processed what had happened next, Allen had already gone down beneath its huge bulk with a despairing cry. The thing seemed to weigh as much as the Ozarks themselves. Gleaming talons grabbed his arms, scoring his flesh with deep slashes and staining the ground with blood, and no matter how he squirmed, he could not break free. His rifle was ripped from his fingers and tossed carelessly into the bush, and when he looked into its eyes, he saw the promise of death.

Being eaten alive is one of man’s most primal fears. It is a leftover from our more primitive ancestors, who lived each day in fear of being run down and torn apart by hungry beasts. Only now, at what seemed like the end, did Allen understand just how intense that fear could be. He saw the creature mauling him in his mind’s eye, tearing him apart as he went screaming to his death, and in gibbering terror he sent a silent prayer to a God who didn’t seem to care.

It leaned in close, and he himself so close to the creature’s fearsome visage that he could feel its hot breath against his cheeks, smell the musk from its fur, and even count the number of fangs in its mouth. Saliva dribbled onto his face as it opened its nightmarish maw.

Allen flinched and shut his eyes. Let it come quickly.

But it did not. Instead of going for the throat or the heart—two the fastest methods of killing prey—the beast lunged forward and buried its fangs into the flesh of Allen’s shoulder instead.

His eyes snapped open and he screamed as the needle-like teeth rent and tore his skin. Blood spurted in crimson jets that were tinted black in the moonlight, and it made the beast glisten where droplets fell on its fur. Tears of agony squeezed from the corner of Allen’s eyes as the beast savaged him, burying its bloodstained muzzle deeper and deeper into his body.

Then it changed tactic. Instead of shearing the flesh away, the creature worked its jaws like a hinge, hesitating for a moment and then biting down like a steel trap.

Allen shrieked in pain. It was as if the animal’s teeth had turned into fiery needles. A burning sensation began to seep into his wound as it held him fast, spreading across his chest until it felt as though his whole body was aflame. Allen screamed to the sky until his vocal chords became raw, writhing in helpless panic.

Then, just when he began to wish for death to take him so that his suffering would end, the beast freed itself with a savage wrench and stood over Allen as he lay in a growing pool of his own blood. He went limp as darkness began to swallow him, and he welcomed it, certain that death had finally come to put an end to the pain.

The beast reached out to grasp him in its claws once more, and everything went black.

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