by Nicki Blake

Anders is searching for poison.

He seeks a bright yellow-green moss which grows on the granite outcrops pleating the upper reaches of the valley. The folk-wisdom tells that, long ago, reindeer-herders scraped it from the stones and ground it with splintered glass. Then they mixed in reindeer-blood. Only the heavy scent of wounded prey could tempt the winter-starved wolves out onto the open plains from their lairs deep in the birch forests. Only the blood’s iron tang could induce them to swallow the bait.

As he trudges, Anders imagines what it must be like to die from poison and glass. Various scenarios play out in his mind, all of them centred on agony.

He hikes for several hours along the valley floor, checking his surroundings as he goes, alert for any movement on his flanks, scanning for tracks in the snow. There’s a gun in his backpack, but it won’t be of any use if they work in a pack to ambush him. He follows the path formed by the ancient dried-up riverbed to a place where the grey slopes give way to towering rock projections. Then it’s a steep climb to one of the ridges where the bile-coloured tufts of moss sprout from the fissures. It’s precarious—the icy scree slides under his boots and he has to jam his hands into rough crevices to anchor himself to the rockface, but his sense of danger has recalibrated in recent years so his ascent is measured and without panic, even when he slips, and he slips often. By the time he reaches his destination, Anders’ knuckles are a mess of ripped skin and weeping blood. He sucks them clean as he moves towards his lurid prize.

They still call it “wolf-moss” even though wolves have been extinct for decades.

He fills several specimen-bags. If his theory is correct, if his experiment works, he’ll share it with his team and then bring them back with him to harvest the whole valley. From what he’s observed, and there still isn’t much data, the predators behave like wolves, hunting all year round and migrating towards food sources. When the weather turns cold, they become desperate. Anders and his team have observed that the recent raids have become bolder, their hunger bringing them out of the forests where wolves were once the only terror. The pack has been moving closer to towns and cities and it’s become more strategic, more deadly.

Death can’t come to them soon enough. Anders hopes it will be agonising.

As he continues to cram wolf-moss into the bags, his knuckles begin to sting, so, again, he sucks them clean, tastes salt and now a hint of something bitter.

Then keening pierces the air and echoes through the valley. Anders flattens his back against the rockface, listening. He can’t see anything and he can’t risk moving to look. The screech is answered, the calls multiply. They must have caught the scent from his bleeding hands. He stays still as the cries abate. The next sound he hears is a scrabbling like a dog scratching at a door—the sound of many claws dislodging the scree.

He slowly reaches for his backpack, removing his notebook, his water-bottle, the gun. As the scrabbling intensifies, he jots down a few urgent sentences, shoves the book into a specimen bag, and seals it before wedging it in a space in the rock where it will be noticeable to whoever comes looking for him.

He sees the claws first as they grip the ledge. Hooked, yellow, filthy, they are attached to attenuated limbs which pull the full horror up and into view: the quasi-human face; nose drawn into a snout; a maw of stained fangs; lidless eyes staring right at him. He sees its nostrils flare, hears the ragged sniff. As it advances, more of the pack crawl over the ledge and fall in line behind their leader. Anders can’t scream because his mouth is filled with wolf-moss. He drinks to force it down, shoves another handful in and drinks again.

There’s a fair quantity of poison, and soon there’ll be more than enough blood. He’s strangely aware, as he feels the gun’s cold kiss under his chin, that he has no glass to ingest.

He prays that, even without it, the effect will be agonising.

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