STORIES 

ONE

 

 

Joseph Greene looked down the steep snowy slope, unable to drum up the will to descend. He struggled to find the joy in any activity these days, which went against the whole purpose of being on a getaway to the French Alps with his wife, Helen. This was supposed to be their escape from everything back home. Home? A funny word to describe it. Dublin hasn’t felt like home in a long time. He knew depression was eating away at him – more than ever these days – and despite his darling wife’s best efforts to cheer him up, he’d reached a point where he simply didn’t care anymore.

   And who could blame him? Back home in Dublin, their world was unraveling quicker than a butterfly’s lifespan, and his business was on the verge of liquidation, like so many enterprises in post-Celtic Tiger Ireland.

   When away from the office, he relied on his family to offer hope and support – something to live for. However, he found being a father of two girls difficult, especially with them being in their early twenties – both fueling a ball of worry in the back of his mind, making his life harder than it needed to be.

   “Come on, Jo,” Helen begged, “let’s go down one more time before it gets dark.”

   He didn’t reply, no longer caring about skiing. As the sky faded to black, his thoughts shifted to his daughters. Erin, his youngest, was probably back home listening to what he called devil music. That new boyfriend is to blame, no doubt. Cocky arsehole has no respect. Fucker dragging his dirty shoes through the house when he came over for dinner. He won’t last. She’ll see sense, or he’ll break her heart soon enough and I’ll have to pick up the pieces.

   Then there was Anya, his oldest. Off the grid a few years now and no time for anyone other than herself. Helen’s lucky to get the odd message off her, even if it’s only when she’s stuck for cash. Still… it’s nice to know she’s out there somewhere… alive.

   “No, love,” he said, turning to face their cosy log cabin. “I’m done for the night.”

   “Come on, please? Last time. I’ll race you.”

   “No.” He sighed and shook his head. “Where did it all go wrong, darling?”

   “Jo, come on. You can’t keep dwelling on this.” She placed a hand on his shoulder. “We’re currently standing on the side of Mount Blanc. A wood cabin with a warm fire, all to ourselves… Let’s forget about Dublin and everything back home for a few days. Please, let’s just enjoy this trip.”

   He loved his wife dearly, and a part of him wanted to go along with her and speed down the slope, the cold air whooshing past his face – a hint of youthful exuberance fueling his inner child – but that part wasn’t getting out. Not now, and as far as he was concerned, probably not for the remainder of this trip. He looked at her. “Society is eating itself, Helen.”

   She rolled her eyes and made her way back to the cabin.

  “What?” he asked. “What did I say?” He picked up his skiing equipment and trudged after her.

 

 

The cabin – well, more of a chalet – was made of wood, and fitted out with more mod cons than an average person could ever need. Even the cutlery was sterling silver. Still, both of them loved it. For Joseph, the best part was the large stone fireplace in the centre of the room. Every night since they’d arrived, it hosted a blazing fire that warmed and comforted them. He’d curl up in front of it, one arm around his wife, the other holding a drink that took the edge off his depression until he eventually passed out. Not tonight, though. No, tonight, under a near-full moon, he drank alone with his thoughts.

   As he watched the flames flick and dance, he wondered where his girls might be. He hoped they were okay, and made a promise to himself that he’d fix everything. But, first, he had to fix himself.

   His body screamed for sleep – an impossible task with the million thoughts swirling around his head. And despite everything in his life up to this point, one thing ate away at him: A week before he and Helen made their escape from the dystopian hell Dublin was fast becoming, one of his efforts at making the country a better place was shot down – a knockback that hurt him deeply.

   For a number of years, he’d tried his hand as a community activist and brought a few proposals to the local council’s table. What he saw as progressive ideas, like extra charging points for electric cars and more cycle lanes, never came to fruition. He’d taken their negative response on the chin. However, the one thing he was most passionate about was the preservation of wildlife in the Wicklow Mountains. Every year, the culling of deer bothered him and he suggested the reintroduction of wolves to bring balance through natural predation.

   Another immediate rejection, which didn’t surprise him, but he took it to heart – his passion project up in smoke. These people couldn’t see beyond the end of their noses. He had the whole thing planned out, and it filled his head to the extreme. But now, several drinks later, his mind was too tired to rationalise any of it, and he allowed himself to slip off into a welcome slumber.

TWO

 

 

 

He woke to the sound of Helen singing. Not the worst wake-up call. The smell of eggs frying on a pan drew him to the kitchenette, where he kissed his wife and wished her a good morning.

   She didn’t respond.

   “Come on, Helen. I’m sorry about yesterday.”

   “You ruined the day with your moaning and—”

   “I’m sorry, my love.”

   “No, that’s not good enough. We’re here for a few days to get away from all the shit back home. Promise me you’ll be in better form today.”

   Despite being given out to, Joseph couldn’t help but look at her in admiration. She was his everything: smart, strong, athletic and, above all, his shining light. Her golden hair caught in the sun, creating what, for a brief moment, looked like a halo. What would he do without her? Through everything, she was always by his side – supporting, encouraging – and he hated to see her upset or angry.

   He took a beat to walk in her shoes and realised that, just like him, she had her own plateful of issues that needed resolving. Like him, she worried for the girls, but hid it better. She needed a break.

   “I’m sorry, darling. I’ll try to be in better spirits today. It’s just the stress. And I worry about the girls. Erin is mixing with a bad crowd and—”

   “She’s young, Jo. You’re not the only one stressed and worried about them. I carry that around with me, too. We can’t succumb to it. Besides, she’ll be starting her accountancy job soon enough. Give it time, she’ll see that she can do a hell of a lot better than that Philip guy.”

   He believed her. How could he not? Helen and Erin were like best friends and, at times, he could have sworn they were the same person. However, the same could not be said for Anya. And that’s why he feared for his youngest. Like Erin, Anya mixed with a bad crowd – heavy partygoers – and had a liking for the bad boy types. Why can’t they both be the quiet girls we raised them to be?

   “I hope you’re right. I don’t want Erin turning out like—”

   “Joseph, please. I don’t want to discuss Anya and her downward spiral. Not here. Not now. Lord knows, we’ve tried our best with her—”

   “She is our daughter, Helen. I worry that Erin is walking down the same path.”

   “Well, don’t. I know Erin. She’ll be fine.”

   “And Anya? Do you even know where she is? Where she’s living these days?”

   “She wanted to be a free spirit, Jo. She made that quite clear in her last dramatic episode. Until she’s ready to apologise for shaming the family, I have nothing to say to her.”

   He knew better than to discuss it further, and didn’t need a sixth sense to see the anger bubbling beneath the surface, so he raised both hands, palms out. “Okay. Consider it dropped.” He turned to look at the white slopes beyond the large window. “Come on, we’re wasting this glorious morning.”

   “Good,” she said. “Eat your eggs and let’s go.”

THREE

 

 

 

They sat in wonder as the ski-lift elevated them high above a vast snowy wilderness. An almost-juvenile excitement built up in Joseph, and for the first time in as long as he could remember, he felt happy. Maybe it was the fresh air – the welcome isolation – he didn’t know. Either way, his head was clear and he couldn’t wait to hit the slopes.

   An entire day passed in what felt like minutes – a result of him finally letting loose and having fun.

   “It’s great to see you smile, honey,” Helen said, as they rested on top of the slope watching the sun slip behind the horizon, “Let’s ski down one more time, then go get some dinner.”

   “Sure. Sounds good.” And with a playful wink, he scooped up some snow and stuffed it down the back of her jacket.

   “Oh, you bastard. Get off!” she screamed. “It’s running down my spine!”

   Laughing, he pushed himself forward. “Last one to the bottom makes dinner!”

   She was hot on his tail, and he sensed her determination to whip past him and win the race to the end. As cold air lashed his face, he sat deeper and focused on moving faster, powering ahead. And that’s when something shiny caught his eye – off to his right – through the thick snow-covered army of spruce trees. He slid sideways in a broad loop and drew to a halt in a spray of powder. Yes, there it was – an unnatural rock formation. He removed his scarf, goggles, and gloves, and called to Helen to do the same.

   Face flushed, she was panting after her abrupt stop. “What the fuck, Jo? What’s going on?”

   He struggled to catch his breath. “I saw something back up there.”

   “What?”

   “Looked like a load of stones.”

   “Are you serious? We stopped for a bunch of stones? This entire mountain is made up of rock.”

   “No, it was more than that. Something… flashed.” He frowned. “Come on, Helen, where’s your sense of adventure?”

   “You do enough mountain-walking back home. Are you really asking me to do it here? We’re on holidays, for God’s sake.”

   He didn’t reply. Instead, he removed his skis, gave her a cheeky smile, and began making his way back up the slope, towards the clearing in the trees.

   She slapped her sides. “I guess that’s that so.”

 

 

They didn’t have to wander far, passing through some soaring spruces, before finding themselves in a wide-open space – evidence of an avalanche – the land cleared and flattened.

   “The snow must have ploughed its way through here recently,” he said, his breath heavy after the hike.

   “Did we just miss it?” she asked, clearly in awe of the powerful force of nature. Spruce trees that must have stood for decades, had been swept away, revealing the rocky side of the mountain.

   “Look!” he shouted, pointing to an unusual rock formation. “That’s what I saw.”

   He followed her gaze further on. She was obviously no longer interested in rocks, stunned at the damage caused by a frozen landslide. They moved forward and found themselves surrounded by what appeared to be markers – a ring formation. What looked to be an obelisk, about six-foot tall, stood in the centre.

   “What is this place?” Helen asked, her eyes wide.

   “Whatever it is, it was probably hidden among the trees until the avalanche came through.”

   “It looks like a… graveyard.”

   “Possibly.” He looked around. “I’ve never seen one in a circular formation like this before.”

   They continued exploring, kicking and scooping snow away from each stone, taking it all in. Headstones of some sort, going by the strange etchings on them.

   “It looks like a form of Latin,” Helen said, studying the engravings on one of the stones.

  Joseph was drawn to the large stone obelisk at the centre of the ring, with something inside him pulling him closer to it – like a magnetic draw. He ran his hands over the stone, surprised to find it slightly warm to his touch. The last thing he expected out here was heat. He studied its markings, running his fingertips up along a mix of strange runes and what looked like animal prints, until he came to something wrapped around the top.

What is this?

   Drops of water hung from a thawing leather belt, with numerous pieces of silver studded and woven into it. At its centre, an emblem of some sort was carved into a shape resembling a wolf’s head. He gasped. “Woah… what is this?”

   Helen joined him and they looked at each other, wide-eyed at the find. She examined the piece. “Looks like it’s made from animal hide.”

   “Maybe. It’s definitely handmade.”

   “Should we take it?” she asked, sounding almost mischievous.

   “What? We may have just stumbled on a piece of ancient history.”

   “It could be worth a lot of money, Jo. Enough to get us—”

   “No,” he snapped. “We can’t.” Then her words played through his mind. Maybe she’s right. If it’s an old-world artifact, it could fetch a handsome amount. Possibly enough to get the business back on track… He shook it from his head. They’d never get it into Ireland, let alone sell it, without having to explain how they came into possession of it. “Come on, my love, let’s get back to the resort. We’ll ask the locals about this place and see what we can learn.”

   She nodded but didn’t look away from the piece. “It would be a shame to leave it exposed like this and risk having someone else come along and take it.”

   “It’s not ours, Helen. Don’t—”

   Before he could finish, she reached up and grabbed the belt, snapping it open and away from the obelisk. Next thing, she dropped with a scream.

   “What happened?” he shouted, running to her.

   She rolled to her knees, groaning as she clutched her hands to her chest. “The wolf’s head. It… it’s roasting hot.”

   “What? Show me.” He turned her hands over, revealing roaring-red palms. “Woah, you’re scalded.”

   “It really hurts, Jo.” she whimpered. She pulled away and plunged her palms into snow in a desperate search for relief.

   “Okay, hang on. Keep your hands there.” He looked around, scratching his head. Fuck! We’re a long way from the resort. Her crying flicked him into action mode. He kicked the belt away from the obelisk and buried it beneath some gravelly rock and snow. Then he phoned the emergency services, scooped up his wife, and walked down the hill to wait to be airlifted away from the slopes.

FOUR

Later that night, back in their chalet, Joseph struggled to keep her temperature down, the fever having come from out of nowhere. When they’d returned from the slopes, the medics checked her hands and said it was a light burn – nothing some ice and rest wouldn’t heal, and he’d accepted that. Leaving Helen resting in front of the fire, he cooked a dinner of medium-rare fillet steaks, sweet potato fries, and a summer salad on the side. Despite her injury, everything was set for the pair to have a cosy evening in together.

   Soon after dinner, however, she felt flushed and broke out in a cold sweat, which was accompanied, much to Joseph’s surprise, by burning on her forehead. Her skin colour dulled, too.

   “What’s happening?” she asked, disoriented.

   “You’re burning up, darling. Don’t worry, you’re going to be fine.” He didn’t like it, though. Not one bit.

   She lay stretched out on the couch, sweat pumping from her forehead. Using ice cubes wrapped in a towel, he attempted to bring her temperature under control, but his efforts seemed to have no effect.

   Then her body convulsed and she let out a roar, like a howl, that shook him to his bones. He stood, frozen with fear that he may be witnessing his wife’s final breath as some sort of seizure took over her body. Next moment, everything fell silent.

   With the fire at his back, he stared down at her pale limp body, no longer pumping sweat, or breathing. Dread threatened to overwhelm him, but he couldn’t lose it now. With a quick shake of his head, he snapped out of it and made his way to her.

   Oh, dear God, no. My dear Helen. Why? How? A million questions ran through his head. All she did was handle the wolf-head belt. How long was it buried for? How the hell can someone die from burns to their hands or coming into contact with something like that?

   His mind spun with speculation – everything from plant poisons, frozen viruses, and even supernatural shit, but none of it brought any clarity or helped the situation.

   He leaned over, readying himself for what he was about to see in her face but, to his surprise, her skin was no longer dull. His love looked radiant. Beautiful. Her complexion was flawless, her hair, thick and lush. He ran the back of his hand down the side of her face. “You’re alive?” His breath caught. “H-Helen? Darling? Can you hear me?”

   No response.

   He shifted up and shook her – not rough, but enough that it might wake her from her slumber. “Helen, please wake up.”

   Still no response. Then her closed eyelids moved, like her eyes were rolling about beneath. She mumbled something, and he couldn’t contain his smile. She’s alive!

   “Helen? Oh, Helen!”

   A moment later, she stirred and her eyes snapped open, but he didn’t recognize them. Goosebumps prickled his arms and shoulders as he looked at the narrow pupils surrounded by a pale-yellow iris.

   “Darling, are you okay? You d-don’t look well—”

   “I’m fine,” she said, pulling herself up from the couch. “In fact, I haven’t felt this good, ever.”

   “What? Darling, you just had some sort of seizure. You might be delir—”

   “Stop it, Jo. I’m fine.”

   “But your eyes?”

   “I’m fine.” She stood strong, looking leaner and fitter than ever.

   “Somethings not right here, darling. Are you sure you’re alright? I’m gonna ring the medic and have them check you.” He lifted his phone off the coffee table, but before he could even touch the screen, a force hit his hand and it shot to the floor, its plastic casing shattering on impact.

   “No!” Helen shouted. “I said I’m fine.” The yellow in her eyes glowed, striking fear into him.

   “What did you do that for?” he asked, noticing her hands were fully healed. “Your hands…?”

   “I told you, I’m fine. In fact, I’m feeling better than ever.”

   He stumbled back at the realisation that he didn’t know the woman standing before him. She moved around the chalet’s living area, her brows knitted, as if battling her own thoughts, perhaps adjusting to whatever was flowing through her. Everything about her seemed different.

   “Darling—”

   “What?” she snapped, her gaze locking on him.

   He swallowed back a ball of apprehension. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

   Her mouth opened, possibly to answer but, instead, she dropped to her knees in a fit of coughing, then vomited on the floor.

   He ran to her and, as he placed his hands on her back to comfort her, the force hit him again, only this time, it came in the form of an uppercut, sending him flying across the room into the kitchenette.

   Face down on the tiles, his arms shook as he tried to push himself up. And when he looked up for her, she was making her way to him, as if stalking her quarry. Then she stood above him, primed, like a predator ready to attack.

   “Helen, please, what’s wrong with you?”

   She didn’t reply. Instead, she sniffed the air and smiled, as if savoring whatever scent tingled her nostrils. “We can smell your fear,” she whispered, but not in the voice he’d known for so many years.

   That wasn’t all that was different about her. Her arms had somehow developed to twice their normal size – lean and muscular, and lined with thick black hair.

   “W-We…?” He struggled to catch his breath, but shook his head to clear his senses. What the hell is going on? This is a nightmare! What the fuck has happened to my darling wife?

   She growled and swiped, narrowly missing him as he rolled aside and scurried across the floor – driven by a panic that was beginning to really set in.

   “What the fuck, Helen?”

   “Don’t call me that,” she shouted, lunging for him again, this time connecting, the blow sending him crashing into the kitchen table. Plates smashed off the floor and cutlery pinged as knives and forks bounced around him.

   “Please…” he begged. “Helen, I… don’t understand.”

   As she loomed forward on all fours, he couldn’t help notice how she resembled a wolf zeroing in on its kill, forcing him to recoil in terror at the horror approaching.

   He held his hand up. “Helen. Please!”

   Her transformation was complete and the beast leapt at him, wide mouth revealing massive teeth, ready to clamp down on him.

   In a last effort to defend himself, he grabbed for anything that might help. He clutched his dinner knife and plunged it into the monster’s ribs as it landed on him.

   The howl was deafening.

   It stumbled back, swiping at its rib cage. After a few attempts, the knife was ripped free, the wound sizzling with popping blood bubbles. Its eyes burned as it glared at him.

   “Please, darling.”

   The beast stepped forward but then, as if fighting with itself, it stopped. Its eyes switched colour and, without warning, they softened and focused on him, then it whispered “Good bye” in the voice he knew and loved so well.

Shaking, he watched it back across the room, before it turned and crashed through the large window overlooking the slopes, disappearing into the night.

   A freezing wind blew in as he struggled to his feet and limped over to look through what was left of the window. For a few seconds, he was convinced he’d just had a surreal nightmare. It had to be all a dream – one he’d wake from any moment. But it wasn’t to be. The searing pain across his chest from the monster’s claws reminding him of that. And as much as he wanted to explain what had happened, he couldn’t find the words to formulate cohesive thoughts. The only thing he knew for certain was, whatever happened to his wife at the obelisk: the burning; the wolf-head belt; the strange graveyard… it was somehow all connected – possessing her, transforming her, and changing his life forever.

 

 

THE END