Pike wiped the blood from his hands and started for home. He ignored the pinch of his boots, which were a might too small. It did little to help his somber mood. The trees hung heavy with rain, their dead leaves littering the cobblestone pavement, blown there by a cold, gusty wind. The flames in the streetlamps had long since been extinguished by the storm. Pike found his way by habit, having been down this winding lane many times. He walked along an overgrown hedge, taking care not to brush against it, although he couldn’t have been any wetter.
Pike thought his eyes saw things scurry into the shrubs, creatures that had no business being there. He cast about on both sides, trying desperately to see through the darkness. He saw sinister shapes and form and dissolve into the black, never becoming clear enough to seem real. He paused, unsure if he should go any further. He strained to make out the sounds of animals, something alive other than himself. The rain drowned out any other noise, but the feeling of not being quite alone remained.
Pike took a deep breath and trudged forward, attracted to the warm glow of a tiny window in the inn just ahead. Once there, he pounded his fist on the door several times. The door was locked.
“Who’s there?” came a soft voice.
“It’s Pike. For the love of God, open up!”
After the click of several bolts, the door swung open. A pudgy, round woman hid behind the door, peering out into the night with huge eyes.
“Come in, Mr. Pike. Quickly.”
Pike did so, peeling off his soaked overcoat and warming himself by the crackling fire in the hearth. He nodded to the only other customer, a man he knew as Mr. Dunforth. Dunforth was a spindly, impossibly thin person with a sharpness about him that Pike never cared for.
“What a wretched night,” the barmaid fretted while she did up all the locks again.
“Closing early, aren’t you?”
“Haven’t you heard?” asked the thin man at the bar.
“They say there’s a werewolf about,” said the barmaid in a hushed whisper.
“A werewolf? Here?”
Pike took his usual spot at the far end of the bar and was served a frothy ale without even asking for it. He took a long swig on the pint and wiped his upper lip on his sleeve.
“I haven’t seen anything like that since I was in India,” he said.
“You’ve traveled to India?” asked the barmaid, hopeful for a change in subject.
“Aye, in Her Majesty’s Service. Four long years.”
“What was it like?”
“Bloody hot. Even wetter than here. The jungles had more creatures of the night than you could shake a stick at.”
“Vampires and the like?”
“Some natural, some not. All terrible.” Pike took another long drink of ale.
“Mr. Wiggins lost half a flock of sheep to something last night. Tore them to shreds. Could only be wolves,” said the barmaid.
“Or werewolves,” said the thin man.
“There are worse things than werewolves,” said Pike with a laugh. “I’ve seen things that would curl your hair, Dunforth. All ten of them!” The bony man scowled and smoothed back his thinning hair with one hand.
“Such as?” He dared Pike with a smirk.
“I’ve seen snakes as big around as your pointy head. Swallow you whole, they would. And tigers. Oh, the tigers are the worst. Sly, cunning creatures. Deadly smart. Sneak up on you and kill you just for looking sideways at them.”
“Just a dumb animal,” muttered Dunforth, sipping his own ale. “You can kill any animal with a gun.”
“Not the Sakra. I saw one once. That’s not a tale many live to tell.”
The plump woman leaned in close to hear Pike’s gravelly voice.
“No beast is more feared in all of India. Its half tiger, half man.”
“And you saw one?” Dunforth scoffed.
“I did indeed. How do you think I got this?” Pike removed his hat for the first time and pulled back his loose gray hair to show a set of parallel scars that ran from his ear to his throat. The barmaid gasped.
“I was on the night patrol in a village much like this one. Something had been terrorizing the locals, carrying off their chickens, slaughter their beloved cows. The sergeant told me to keep any eye out for marauding dogs, but it was much worse than that.”
Even Dunforth couldn’t keep from watching Pike reliving the tale, his piercing green eyes taking on an almost fiery glow in the dim light.
“It was hot there, even at night, and the sweat was pouring off me when I heard a woman’s scream, way off down the street. I ran as quick as I could and when I got there, I saw something that’s haunted me for the rest of me days.”
“What was it?” asked the barmaid. Completely engrossed, she absentmindedly wiped down the bar with a rag, not realizing that she had done it twice already.
“A tiger that stood like a man, dragging the bloody corpse of a young woman with one hand.”
“Don’t you mean paw?” corrected Dunforth.
“Maybe he had her in his jaws? At any rate, he climbed down from a balcony nimble as a cat, but when he jumped to the street, he landed on two legs like a man. He saw me, my rifle aimed right straight at his black heart, and screamed like a wild animal. His fangs and claws were dripping with blood, so fresh was its kill.” Pike violently grasped the air, as if to show how the Sakra’s claws reached for him.
“Did you shoot it?
“I tried, but the rifle jammed. The beast attacked me before I could run.” Dunforth snorted.
“If it was so deadly, why aren’t you dead now?”
“I would be if the Sakra hadn’t had something else in mind for me.”
“Oh, now they think? What utter rot!” Dunforth laughed, but it sounded more like a man trying to tame his own fear.
“I said they were cunning, didn’t I?” Pike finished his ale with one last gulp.
“Yes, indeed you did.” Dunforth stood up and slapped a coin on the bar. “I believe I have better things to do than sit here and listen to this nonsense. May I have a room, please?”
“Certainly,” said the barmaid.
“Don’t want to brave the dark, Mr. Dunforth?” teased Pike.
“It’s too far in this storm. I’ll catch me death on a night like this.”
“Perhaps the Sakra has other plans for you as well?”
“What? There’s no such thing,” Dunforth sputtered, clearly annoyed.
“Of course there is.” Pike smiled, revealing a row of sharp ivory teeth belonging more to an animal than a man. The barmaid, who had been retrieving a room key from a drawer, looked up to see the form of Pike grow into that of a snarling orange beast, all fangs and claws and roar. Her gurgling scream was the last thing Dunforth ever heard.