The tan leaves crunching under paw, Ajax decided it was a very pleasant evening for a walk in October. He was enjoying the cooler nights, now that his winter coat was growing in. Being a Long-Haired German Shephard was an absolute joy in the cold but could get rather uncomfortable in the blistering heat of the warmer months.
Emma, his owner, moved to the area about a year ago. The two of them had just about settled into life in the countryside when Ajax had picked up the scent of illness on the breeze, and suddenly she was staying at home with him a lot more often. Walks had been less frequent, but she had started taking him out for longer and longer adventures, on long loops which roamed the countryside, eventually returning to their home in the centre of Spalding.
They set off in the light and had walked until the sun began to set. A heavy, bright moon sat low in the sky as the last rays of sunlight disappeared, the evening birdsong trickling away as the peace of the afterdusk set in.
For the final part of the walk, Emma would take them through the human burial ground, where people came to lay members of their pack to rest. It was often peaceful in the evening and she could allow Ajax to run more freely. He loved this part of their adventure, as there were always lots of scents to investigate. Other owners brought their dogs through here and it was a good chance to catch up on the local nose gossip, in the way only canines could do.
Emma let him off the lead, and Ajax loved her for that. There was still a part of him that felt the pull of being a wild animal, and he celebrated his freedom as Alpha of the Cemetery by leaving his mark on a nearby tree. Ranging a little, but keeping his owner in sight, the dog found plenty of exciting clues, allowing him to piece together what had happened that day. A squirrel had been collecting food under the Horse Chestnut Tree. Bonnie, the white pug, had left her mark on the bench indicating that she was well but not drinking enough water again. A male human had smoked a cigarette on the same bench, and Ajax snuffed in annoyance at the smelly little butt left behind.
Eventually, Emma called to him to return to her side, the Alsatian bounding up to reunite with his owner, until a change in wind direction made him halt in his tracks. A new scent came to him, one that he had never experienced before, but which caused a primal sensation of fear to rise from within his chest. Immediately the dog’s ears perked, straining to hear any kind of threat. Natural instincts caused his pelt to fluff out, and his hackles to rise in readiness for a fight. The unknown danger was unseen and unheard, but Ajax was on high alert for the slightest of movement.
Emma, seeing his reaction, walked to him slowly, her hands straying to her bag to retrieve the heavy set of work keys she kept there. She had grown up living around Birmingham city centre, and late-night jobs working at the trendy clubs and bars on Broad Street had inspired her to take self-defence lessons, in case she was attacked. Her brother had also bought her Ajax when he was just a puppy, to keep her company and offer protection as a single woman living alone.
Her guard had dropped substantially after living in Lincolnshire for the better part of a year; the need to be hyper-aware of potential violence slowly dissolving as she adjusted to rural life, but it only took Ajax’s change in behaviour for it all to come flooding back.
She pressed the keys into her palm, the points of which were hastily arranged between her knuckles as a makeshift weapon, should it come to that. She hoped she wouldn’t have to use it, her confidence shaky at best.
Ajax had trotted quickly towards her, large head swinging back and forth to seek out the source of the malevolent odour. He could smell the fear scent coming of Emma in waves and the dog whined low in his throat to try and reassure her. With a forceful headbutt to her thigh, he tried to communicate as best he could with her. ‘We must move. Be on your guard. Do not let fear slow you’.
She seemed to understand and after a moment’s hesitation turned to walk briskly back to the entrance. The cemetery was suddenly no longer a sanctuary of peace but instead had become a menacing place that meant them harm. The leaf-bare branches reached out with grasping twigs to scratch and entangle. The headstones and bushes became threatening hiding spots, from which a malign entity could cut them down to join the dead below.
The moon herself hid behind a heavy blanket of cloud as if even she could not endure what was about to happen, the grounds plunging into almost unnatural darkness. As they approached the gate which would lead them out of this place, Ajax froze, a frightened growling yip alerting Emma to something standing in their way, something her eyes could only make out as a faint outline.
The creature stood at about the height and mass of a bull, either on four paws or bent low in a stalking crouch. This was all she could make out until something began to glow in the centre of it; a supernatural light burning a bright, hateful crimson in the gloom.
Ajax however saw much more than that, the red light reflecting through the tapetum lucidum at the back of his eyes, helping him to see the fiend in all of its unnatural manifestation. It took the form of a huge, black dog, packed with corded muscle and patches of matted fur, poking through skin which was as dark as the coal in the hearth. Its head was huge, taken up mostly by a gaping maw filled with jagged teeth like those of the great white sea monsters that Ajax had seen on the television during ‘Shark Week’. Most unsettling though was the source of the blooded light which lit up its face; a single red eye sitting in the centre of the creature’s head above the rippled snout, glowing eerily as the thing slavered at its prey.
Emma took a fearful step back as Ajax bounded forward, terrified for his life, but willing to give everything to protect his master. She turned to run as the thing began to advance, halting briefly to implore the Alsatian to ‘Come boy! Come!’, but after a moment’s hesitation, Ajax turned to look over his shoulder at her, intelligence shining in his eyes, before turning back to the demonic hound.
He heard Emma running back into the cemetery and, thinking only of her safety, sprang at the beast, managing to sink his teeth into the oily fur of its throat. Foul blood seeped across his tongue before the creature swatted him away with a paw as big as the German Shepherd’s head. He hit a stone monument hard and yelped, the force of it stunning the dog briefly as his legs scrabbled to gain purchase so he could stand once more before it could land a second blow.
To his horror, the thing had barely paused after his bite and had taken off after Emma. Staggering to his feet, Ajax slowly took off after it, legs shaky, but picking up momentum in his desperate need to protect his owner.
Emma, meanwhile heard Ajax squeal and froze mid-step, her instinct to go back and help her loyal friend, but in that moment she heard the thunderous steps of a creature too large to be natural, and panic once again spurred her on in search of somewhere to shelter. Darting left and right in a zigzag through the plots, she spotted a stone mausoleum a few metres ahead. She and Ajax had walked the cemetery many times, and she remembered stopping to look at the structure a few weeks ago. It had metal railings in place of a door, secured with a rusty lock and chain, but if she could break in, she might be able to shelter there long enough to call for help from her mobile.
She reached the doors to the tomb in what felt like an eternity but in reality, couldn’t have been more than a few seconds. The cemetery was suddenly as quiet as the grave and, panting with exertion, she had to hold her breath to listen over her shuddering breaths and the rushing of blood in her head. Distantly she could hear what sounded like wind rushing, until she realised it was the beast, drawing in great lungfuls of air as if trying to scent her.
Realising it must have lost sight of her, she took a moment to steady her nerves before taking off her jacket and wiping down her face and arms so the fear-sweat transferred onto the lining of the coat. She had taken Ajax on a few training courses for working breeds, and they had taught her that Alsatians enjoyed using their noses to search for treats, or to track their owners. The instructor has gotten owners to bring in unwashed clothes to hide around the woods they did the training in, and Ajax had loved sniffing them out for a reward.
Taking a risk, Emma used this knowledge and crept out past the mausoleum, jacket in hand as she searched for a place to hide it. Edging around a tree she almost cried out as her foot sank into an old foxhole at the base, wrenching her ankle hard. He ankle twinged sharply as she pulled it out, but in doing so realised she’d found a good place to store the jacket. Balling it up, she shoved it deep into the hole, praying that she hadn’t condemned some poor family of foxes to a horrible death. For good measure, she also grabbed a handful of dirt from the edge of the hole, rubbing it quickly down her bare arms to try and conceal her scent as best she could. She honestly had no idea if it would work, but anything was worth a shot.
Listening hard again, she could hear the beast was closer now, trying to track her, and it would find her if she didn’t move. Gingerly walking on her injured ankle, she took a wide circle around where she thought it was, edging back to the tomb. At one point it sounded like the thing was only on the other side of the stone, and she held her breath until it carried on in the direction of the foxhole she had just come from. She prayed that distraction would delay it long enough for her to get in, as she crept back round to the iron gate which prevented access.
She grabbed the heaviest thing in her bag, a can of diet cola, and smashed it down hard on the lock. She swore softly at the loud crack of metal on rusty metal but carried on a second, and third time until the old padlock gave. As it did, she realised at the last microsecond that there was no longer anything supporting the heavy iron chain, until it slithered off and descended to the stone step in a clanging cacophony of noise.
She felt the roar of excitement in her chest, just as much as she heard it, and her heart felt as though it had dropped through her stomach. Wrenching the door open she darted inside before slamming the bars shut behind her. She could see the dark creature approaching as her trembling hands reached through the bars to grab onto the chain and wrap it around the door bars. Fear and adrenaline caused her to fumble, and she imagined she could smell its fetid breath as it quickly advanced on her.
The beast failed to slow as it bounded towards her, throwing its full weight against bars which were never created to withstand so much brute force being thrown against them. The creaking groan of old iron complaining as it bent inwards sounded out, but by some miracle, it held, even as the creature tried to force its head through the too-small gaps in the railings.
Holding onto the chain for dear life in her one hand, Emma scrabbled to pull her mobile out of her bag as the thing continued to lean on the bars, trying desperately to reach the terrified woman.
A momentary streak of relief cut through her fear, as she triumphantly withdrew the phone. Typing one-handed, she misdialled 999 three times, before keying it in correctly on the fourth attempt. Meanwhile, the demonic hound continued to lean on the door, putting all of its weight into its murderous ambition to rend the flesh from the frightened creature before it.
Emma could barely remember what she had said to the operator, but the police were on their way. Hope blossomed within her for a moment, before terror resurged as the gate groaned again, and the top hinge popped free from its fitting, the beast roaring again as if in triumph. It backed up a moment, its intentions dawning on Emma as she scrabbled back from the gate, before the hound ran at the gate a final time, throwing all of its weight and ferocity at the move. The gate crumpled under the onslaught, and Emma saw a flash of ivory as it opened its ragged maw as if in victory. She backed up as far as she could into the mausoleum as the thing advanced, finally shutting her eyes tight as if she could block out her approaching death.
Expecting to be torn apart, her eyes flew open in surprise as the thing howled in pain, scrabbling backwards as something tore into it from behind. It was then that she recognised Ajax, his powerful jaws locked onto the back of the thing’s neck and holding on for dear life. It shook and turned wildly trying to get her dog off, but Ajax continued to hold, sharp teeth dug into the bare patch of greasy black skin at the nape of its neck. It reared up suddenly, and Emma realised in horror what it was about to do, as it toppled backwards, intending to crush the dog beneath its massive bulk. She shouted out a warning to the Alsatian, and he let go at the very last minute, however her protector wasn’t finished yet, and renewed his assault on the beast which had threatened his master, lunging at the thing’s face whilst it was off-balance, and tearing at its ear.
The creature howled in pain and fury at the move, managing to right itself before clamping its shark-like teeth around the paw of the German Shepherd and flinging it off. Ajax’s paw burned fiercely, having been made raw by the jagged fangs of the beast, but he recovered quickly, limping to stand in front of his owner and growling out the fiercest warning he could at the thing.
Seemingly undeterred, the beast approached warily, a growling a challenge in response as the two canine creatures squared off with each other. At the last second, before they began the fight anew, the distant sound of a siren wailed, and Emma and both hounds looked towards the entrance to the cemetery, ears perked. Blue lights could be seen approaching, responding to Emma’s call for help.
On looking back at the creature, both Ajax and his owner were surprised to see that it had seemingly disappeared, only the black bile-like blood and massive pawprints showing that it had ever existed at all. Fight-or-flight response, still coursing through her body, Emma gestured to Ajax and they both took off in a sprint towards the entrance where three police cars had already arrived.
Covered in dirt and blood, an ambulance was called, and Emma was placed in the back of a police car as a kind Sergeant wrapped her in an orange foil blanket and gave her sugary tea to help with the shock. Although injured, Ajax refused to leave her side, and when the ambulance crew assessed her, they were kind enough to patch him up as best they could, on the understanding that he should go straight to a vet to properly check his injuries.
The scene passed in a whirl of questions, tea and blue lights, but before she was taken to the station Emma thought she heard something, as a police officer took photographs of the beast’s footprints; a distant unearthly howl carrying long and low across the Spalding countryside.
‘And so they say, in the tale of Old Shuck,
An encounter might bring you the worst of luck:
So you’ll do well to shut both eyes and ears
Whether the voice of the wind, or the dog fiend you hear.’