On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
I’d love to have you as a subscriber to the weekly free story. You can subscribe via email here. Unsubscribe any time, from the link in every issue.
They always worked in pairs. One man and one woman. And no matter what their real names were, when they worked, they were always called Adam and Eve.
This trip was to the forests of the Tatra National Park in Slovakia, currently off-limits to visitors due to essential infrastructural work — but of course there was no such work. Adam and Eve, alongside all their brother and sister Adams and Eves around the world, were always on call. They had been deployed there at short notice just after three in the morning. And as always, it was a hunt.
“GPS sighting point is two hundred metres west,” Eve said, consulting the display mounted on the side of her weapon. They were working their way along the shoreline of one of the hundred or so tarns in the protected area; moderately sized mountain lakes, many bordered with dense pine forests.
Adam grunted, weapon raised as he scanned the area and pushed steadily forward. Dawn was still a couple of hours off, and this was the most likely time of night for an encounter. The Slovaks had their own word for the creatures, of course, and Adam liked it more than Eve did.
Vlkolak, she thought. As if they needed to sound any more sinister.
There was a strong wind coming down from the peaks, and so the trees were all in motion. Not ideal circumstances, but the thermal overlay on their field headsets was a big help. Eve saw Adam noticing a hare or some similar small animal popping its head up twenty metres to their left. If she was a gambling sort of person, she’d wager that the animal was relieved to see them.
“You ever think about getting married?” Adam asked, without breaking his stride or glancing around, and Eve raised an eyebrow in surprise.
“Romantic setting for a proposal,” she said, and she heard him snort over her comms earpiece. Adam was already married, and had been for a long time. He settled down when he was young and still a junior investigator at what most of its employees liked to call the Department of Wildlife Control. Recently, he and his wife had welcomed their first child into the world. Eve thought that the little girl was seven or eight months old now, but it might have been a little more.
“I just mean, you know, doing any of the big life stuff,” Adam replied. Eve wanted to ask if he’d been talking to her father, but the joke would fall flat for at least two reasons: first, Adam sounded serious this time, and second, her father had been dead for quite a while.
“I don’t think about it too much in this job,” she said truthfully, and Adam made a noise of acknowledgement.
Eve wondered where he was going with all this, but their attention was immediately diverted by a large thermal signature just up ahead.
“I see it,” Adam said quietly via his microphone, and Eve flipped the safety switch on her rifle as she checked the display again.
143 kilograms. Big boy.
It had probably been a backpacker or climber. It was the off season for day tourism, but there was always someone exploring the forest and the foothills. They’d picked a bad time for it.
The creature had noticed them before they sighted it, of course, and as usual it was standing its ground. These things were hungry, always. Fear wasn’t in their vocabulary.
“Countermeasures,” Eve said, and in a practised movement, she and Adam both took their non-trigger hands from their weapons, reached up to their necks, and pressed hard on the skin-patch they’d each applied earlier. The subcutaneous injection was painful, but mercifully brief. The anti-venom it contained would be effective for up to two hours, which was longer than it ever took to kill or be killed by one of these things.
If I have to die today, Eve thought, I’d rather do it without becoming a werewolf.
Adam took the first shot at the creature, and to his credit the round punched neatly into the gigantic beast’s left shoulder, drawing a roar of pain and rage. It immediately broke into a loping run directly towards them.
Eve opened fire, circling in the opposite direction from Adam, as per protocol.
“It’s just that with the baby now, it changes things.” Adam said over the intercom, breathing a little harder now, and Eve frowned. Her own shot had just missed the beast by a metaphorical and literal hair, but she’d managed to draw its attention. She could see its teeth even at this distance, and it looked to be about seven and a half feet tall. About average for its kind.
“Changes what?” she shouted, moving towards tree cover as she saw Adam in her peripheral vision now coming around to a position where they could catch the animal in a crossfire.
“I know it takes a lot out of someone,” Adam said. “Pregnancy. Giving birth, and the whole hospital thing. And there’s… well, you know. Healing to do.”
Eve was the one to snort this time. “Is this conversation about sex?” she asked, and she was amused to see Adam take three consecutive shots at the creature, only one of which hit its mark. Not protocol. “Because you need to give the woman some time.”
“Christ sake,” he muttered. “No. I’m not a bloody caveman. Actually it’s the opposite. Or something. It’s just—”
He broke off when the vlkolak abruptly swung round, fangs completely bared, and caught him in the middle of his approach. Adam let off a barrage of slightly sloppy shots, but the beast was having none of it. It charged, taking its punishment as it came, and even losing an eye in a cloud of pink jelly barely slowed it down.
“Uh,” Adam began, but he didn’t have either time or cause to finish the thought.
“Down,” Eve said, and Adam obligingly dropped and rolled to the side, fortunately into a hollow formed when a dead tree had finally toppled to one side.
The explosion was flat, and like a slap on the back of Adam’s head. Then the familiar and disgusting smell of burnt skin and hair. Silver nitride grenades were incredibly effective, but they left a stink and a hell of a mess.
“Appreciated,” Adam said wearily, getting up and brushing leaves from his tactical gear.
“Noted,” Eve replied, still busily scanning the area for further contacts, but they seemed to be alone for the moment. “So it’s just what? Lost a wife and gained someone’s mother? Needs not being met? Squeamish about breastfeeding?”
Adam gave her a pointed look, and she shrugged.
“No,” he said. “What I was going to say is that, just, it’s changed things a lot at home. I don’t mind doing all the stuff. Glad to do it, if it helps her. Which it does.”
Eve re-engaged the safety on her rifle, and glanced over at him. “But?”
“But, I suppose, … it just eats up a lot of your day. You know how this job is,” he replied. “Takes it out of you. When you get home, you want to wind down.”
Eve nodded as sympathetically as she possibly manage, suppressing a very powerful urge to roll her eyes. “Of course,” she said evenly.
Adam nodded too, looking as if he felt vindicated. They were silent for a moment, until both of their tracking displays chirped to indicate a second contact. Eighty metres out, and larger than the first. They lifted their rifles into firing position.
“It’s great being a father,” Adam said as they began moving forward at diverging angles. “It is. But, all the stuff, it just…”
He broke off, disengaged his rifle’s safety again, and sighed.
“It really cuts into my me time.”
I hope you enjoyed this brief tale. If you have any thoughts or questions, I’d love to hear from you; I'm @mattgemmell on Twitter.
I encourage you to share this story with anyone you think would enjoy it! If you’d like to receive a tale like this via email every week, you can sign up to receive them here.
Thanks for reading.