For 2022, I’ve been wanting to write more ‘creature features’ and generally improve my short story writing. My partner got me a Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual for my birthday so I came up with the idea of writing a story every week based on a different creature from that – All There in the (Monster) Manual. Hope you enjoy!
This Week’s Inspiration: Werewolf
Little Red Riding Hood is taking some food to Grandma’s house! But to get there, she’ll have to cross the dangerous, post-apocalyptic wasteland filled with mutants and psychos. And something even worse is watching, a monstrous shapeshifter named Wolfe!
Little Red Riding Hood checked the load for her pistol and slapped it into a holster strapped to her right thigh. Several knives clipped onto her waist and armoured vest. Over the top of it all, she pulled on her namesake red cloak. Hooded, long enough to trail to the tops of her combat boots, and the colour of fresh blood.
“I’m taking this food to Grandma’s place.”
Red briefly revealed a batch of supplies she’d stashed in a wicker basket, covered by a gingham cloth. Mostly canned goods, beans, peaches, and spam, and some jarred vegetables floating in preservatives. Food scavenged from the ruins.
“Be careful, Little Red Riding Hood,” Red’s mother warned. “Don’t stop, and don’t talk to strangers.”
“I think I know the rules, mom,” Red replied.
In the garage, Red loaded the basket onto the back of her custom motorcycle. Stripped back and then armoured in places where it might have been otherwise vulnerable, Red had personally built the bike out of scavenged pieces from at least three or four mismatched motorcycles. As she climbed into the saddle and booted the starter, the engine snarled instantly to life. The garage’s armoured door rumbled into the ceiling and Red blasted out into the irradiated sunshine, making sure the compound sealed itself shut behind her.
Woods Ave, the name dangling off a crooked signpost at the nearest intersection, was the straightest route across the ruined city. Red wheeled her bike onto the avenue and picked up speed. Rubble and rusty cars choked the streets. Weeds pushed through every available crack as nature struggled to reclaim the shattered world. Craters obliterated large chunks of the cityscape. Charred spires were all that remained of most skyscrapers and blackened skeletons lay everywhere.
There was little evidence of the city’s few remaining residents, like Red, doing anything to clean up or repair the buildings. Part of the reason for that was because most of the remaining inhabitants were best avoided. Little Red Riding Hood saw movement across a field of ruin and slowed. A lone figure poked around the edge of one of the craters. Big, round shouldered, they wore makeshift armour and a bulky gasmask. Red called the man the Woodsman because of the axes that jutted above his shoulders from holsters sitting alongside his spine. Other small axes, hatchets, hung off his belt. Hearing Red’s motorbike, the Woodsman looked up and his goggles fixed on her. The two regarded one another for a few moments before Red pulled away.
Above the city, someone or something else watched Little Red Riding Hood as well, unseen, from a section of broken floor jutting off the side of a ruined skyscraper. Vast, distorted wings, leathery membranes stretched between feathery limbs, folded against its sides. The creature was a mass of biological chaos, a mishmash of various flying and dangerous creatures with something temporarily humanoid at the centre of it all. And the chaos kept moving, patches of hair, limbs, even eyes and mouths moving and shifting, growing and shrinking to nothing across the creature’s body. From somewhere within the mutant shape croaked a thick voice.
“Hey there, Little Red Riding Hood. You sure are looking good.”
While mutants created by radiation and biological weapons now roamed this blighted world, the creature watching Little Red Riding Hood, and that had been watching her for days, was something far worse. Created in a government laboratory, BB2315126 had been intended to be the perfect soldier and spy. It escaped shortly before the bombs dropped when the government fell into disarray, slaughtering every guard and scientist that got in its way.
It, he, had been genetically engineered as a shapeshifter. Designed to be able to get into any facility, no matter how secure, by taking on different faces and forms, and then to kill whoever it needed to kill by turning its body into a biological weapon. A level of intelligence had been a necessary part of BB2315126’s design or it couldn’t have performed the espionage and mimicry the scientists desired. Those responsible for his creation, however, had underestimated just how sadistic BB2315126’s mind could be. The shapeshifter wasn’t entirely removed from human feeling though, and it craved companionship.
Unfurling his monstrous wings, BB2315126 dove from his perch. Unseen, he followed Red’s path, flying between and behind buildings. Unseen by Red at least. The Woodsman turned his head slowly, watching the strange aberration from behind his gasmask.
Red purred her bike down Woods Ave, keeping her eyes open for traps and ambushes but not looking at the sky. BB2315126 overtook her in the air and continued along the same path, gliding to the ruined street. Growing legs, he landed. Rats fled, squealing, into the rubble. The shapeshifter drew his wings and much of his mass into himself. He couldn’t introduce himself to his new companion in a form that would scare her. He looked around as if for inspiration. Ragged and charred at the edges but mostly intact, a billboard overlooked the nearest intersection. On it, a male model with chiselled features, all in black and white, posed in a grey suit in such a way as to draw attention to a designer watch on his wrist. Perfect, that would be a perfect disguise to wear while meeting Little Red Riding Hood for the first time.
Bones popped and crackled and shifted. Flesh, gaining density, melted and packed itself across a human frame. Wings became arms. Knees snapped and reversed direction, becoming human in form and function. BB2315126’s motley of skin textures smoothed out and became a grey suit like the one worn by the model on the billboard. His face took on the exact appearance of the male model. The creature’s abilities weren’t perfect, however. His eyes remained as lifeless and empty as a pair of doll’s eyes. Things continue to sift in his face and hands, as if something was worming around beneath the surface. And as intelligent as BB2315126 had been made, it lacked some understanding of the world and failed to account for some details of the billboard itself.
Adjusting the sides of his suit, made from warm skin, BB2315126 compared his appearance to the man on the billboard. His eyes bulged then fell back in their sockets. In one corner of the billboard was the name of the brand being advertised, ‘WOLFE’. Perfect, the shapeshifter needed a new name to go with its new face.
Red spotted the man in the grey suit as he emerged from the side street ahead and she slowed. Her red cloak furled behind her. He held his hands above his head to show his peaceful intentions. Red would have blasted past him but she worried he had some way of trapping her if she did. People just didn’t approach one another with empty hands these days unless they had a plan. She noticed how strangely he was dressed, and how his skin looked as grey as cement, bloodless and pale. In copying the billboard, BB2315126 had turned himself black and white and shades of grey instead of infusing his skin with a lifelike colour.
“What do you want?” Red shouted over her bike’s motor.
“I only want to talk, I’ve seen you, I’ve watched you,” BB2315126 said. “My name is Wolfe.”
“Well, Mr Wolfe, I’ve got to be on my way.” Red’s hand hovered over her pistol.
“That’s right, you’re going to grandmama’s house, aren’t you? What do you have in that basket? Some food for her?”
“How did you know that?”
“I told you, I’ve been watching. We’re not so different, you and I. Both of us loners, both outcasts, looking for a place where we fit in.”
Wolfe’s lower jaw bulged forward, exposing his bottom row of teeth. Things moved beneath his skin. Yawning, Wolfe fixed his jaw back into place. Red noticed that whatever made his skin grey affected the inside of his mouth as well, so his tongue and the insides of his cheeks were also shades of grey and black. She didn’t know he was a shapeshifter copying his look from a black and white photo and assumed it was some kind of mutation until her eyes tracked to the nearby billboard. Wolfe, or at least a man who looked exactly like him, filled the advertisement. Even his name, ‘WOLFE’, was printed in the bottom right corner. Red grabbed and whipped her gun out of its holster.
“What are you?”
Wolfe’s eyes bulged, as if growing too large for his sockets. “I told you, I’m like you. But I could be anything you want me to be.”
“Back off! Just get the hell away from me.”
“The road ahead is dangerous, full of hidden terrors. Just let me walk with you a while to keep you safe. You can point the gun at me until you’ve been shown that I can be trusted walking with you alone.”
“I don’t know what the hell you are, but back off! Back off, over there! Now, creep!”
Hands raised, Wolfe retreated the way he’d come. His dead eyes betrayed nothing. More things shifted beneath his skin.
“You’ll be sorry,” Wolfe warned.
Still training the gun with one hand, Red gunned her bike forward. She leaned over the handlebars and shot down the street, leaving Wolfe behind looking incongruous as a black and white being in a world of muted colour.
Wolfe bristled a little as Red steered away, but he wasn’t necessarily surprised. The shapeshifter had already been planning for such an eventuality. He had to show Red she needed, and soon would have, only him. His arms and suit turned into massive wings. Taking the shape of a huge but deformed eagle, he erupted into the air.
The compound belonging to Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother sat on the other side of the city. From the air though, Wolfe could reach it in a matter of minutes. Grandma had built her compound behind the thick walls of a rich neighbourhood and she’d reinforced it well. Spikes and razor wire topped the walls. Plates of armour covered the windows and bars reinforced the front door. Cameras studded the outside of the structure and invisible alarms were in place. Wolfe avoided it all easily, floating down on the roof and folding his wings.
Wolfe had been designed for infiltrating secure facilities. He crawled around the outside of the building until he found a small window he could pry the armour plating from with his incredible strength. Breaking the glass, he slipped inside. Wolfe found himself in a disused bathroom on the upper floor. The shapeshifter readopted his black and white ‘Wolfe’ form, more or less. His limbs looked a little too long and his face was disjointed, pieces moving and writhing under the grey skin. Wolfe moved into a dimly lit corridor and closed the bathroom door quietly behind him.
“And I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your house down, Grandma.”
Grandma’s house was full of musty carpet, lights shaped like gas lamps, and shelves of dusty knickknacks. It looked like an old people’s home. Wolfe crept along quietly but he remained arrogantly unafraid that anything could harm him. He approached what he imagined was Grandma’s bedroom door.
“Grandma, it’s your new grandson-in-,”
A thunderous blast interrupted Wolfe’s introduction and ripped apart his face. The shapeshifter staggered backward but didn’t fall. Tatters of flesh splattered the walls and ceiling, but no blood.
Grandma stepped out of the bedroom, pumping a smoking shotgun. She was a shrunken and wrinkled version of her granddaughter with a helmet of snow white hair. Her face fixed in an expression of grim determination. Expelling the used shell, Grandma fired into Wolfe’s chest. The flesh parted open but no blood spilled. What remained of Wolfe’s head had no skull to give it structure. All that was left was a spongy mass attached to strings of meat that hung and flapped. Grandma ejected a second shell, aimed, but hesitated.
“What are you?” Grandma asked.
Wolfe appeared disorientated for a few moments but even faceless, chest shredded, he didn’t fall over. His hands came around, literally turning into claws. Black knives grew from his fingertips. Teeth sprouted from the interior of what was left of his head. Grandma had seen mutants and barbarians and once-domesticated animals turned into savage monsters, but she’d never seen anything like Wolfe. After only a moment of shock, however, she unloaded the shotgun into the shapeshifter, working the pump action and firing.
With each blast, Wolfe lurched down the corridor. He staggered to the landing above Grandma’s parlour and fell against the wooden bannister. Grandma’s final shot hammered him in the chest and blew him backward through the railing. He tumbled to the ground floor, surrounded by debris, and landed with a meaty whack. Grandma went to the gap and looked down, seeing the mangled corpse spreadeagled on the rug below.
Grandma reloaded the shotgun before she did anything else. Probing ahead with the barrel, she walked down the stairs and crossed the parlour carefully. Wolfe, in his chosen human form, was all grey and black and white, even deep in the flesh. As his body had changed, colour started to come back before Grandma seemingly finished him. She saw teeth and claws and tentacles spewing from the humanoid form, now unmoving.
“What the hell are you, beastie?”
Suddenly, the old woman jolted in place. Her face blanched. Wolfe sat up and extended a weaponised limb right into Grandma’s midsection. Wolfe’s arm transformed into a long spar of bone, jagged and veined in ribbed flesh. It punched into her stomach with the tip emerging from her back. Blood ran down the spear, and the old woman’s legs.
One eye remained in the ruin of Wolfe’s face. It stared triumphantly as a mouth took shape on the lower half of his face.
“When your granddaughter gets here, she won’t even know the difference. Not until she can see how I can be trusted.”
Blood bubbled out of Grandma’s mouth. “Stay away from Red!”
In spite of her weakened state, Grandma tried to raise her gun again. Wolfe yanked her closer. The shapeshifter’s body opened like a mouth and consumed her whole. Closing around her, Wolfe’s shapeless mass smothered her struggles until she settled and went still. Bloated, distended, his injuries healed but he didn’t have long to absorb Grandma. His sensitive aural receptors picked up the sound of Little Red Riding Hood’s motorcycle pulling up outside.
Red cruised to a stop at the gates of her grandmother’s compound. The encounter with whatever Wolfe was kept playing through her mind. Glancing over her shoulder, she feared she’d been followed. As she thumbed the intercom, Red decided to get inside, tell Grandma what happened, and take stock of the situation.
“Grandma? It’s me, it’s your granddaughter.”
It took a long time to get a reply, a couple of minutes. Eventually, however, the gates’ motors coughed to life and they began to grind open. The speaker attached to the intercom crackled.
“Little Red Riding Hood? I’m not feeling well. Come straight to the bedroom.”
Red pulled her motorcycle through the gates and they closed behind her. She parked in front of the house. Watching the cameras that watched her, Red avoided her Grandma’s traps and let herself in through the front door.
Red immediately noticed the broken gap in the bannister above the entryway. Wolfe, however, had cleared away everything else. There was no debris, no other signs of a fight or traces of blood. Red let the door ease closed behind her. She carried her basket of supplies up the stairs but remained wary.
“In here, dear,” what sounded like her Grandma’s voice croaked from the bedroom.
Grandma’s door was ajar. Red used the basket to gently push it open. Internally, something screamed at her that something was wrong and her other hand didn’t stray far from the holster on her right hip. The room was dark but Red could see a figure in the bed across the room. As her eyes adjusted, she almost couldn’t make sense of what she was seeing. Her body went rigid. It was like some bizarre trick of perspective, some funhouse exhibit, had taken the place of her Grandma’s bedroom.
“Come closer, child,” the thing in Grandma’s bed insisted.
Wolfe could change his shape, and at times gave the impression of dramatically changing his size, but he couldn’t shift his own mass. Given time, he would break down the biomass absorbed from Grandma but he hadn’t had time to do so before Red arrived. The shapeshifter had decided the most elegant solution was to transform into Grandma’s shape, remain in darkness, and hope Red didn’t notice the size difference. The result was that he filled the bed, looking like Grandma in an old fashioned nightdress and cap but looming some two-and-a-half times bigger than the real Grandma. Around eight foot tall, even while hunched up Grandma’s feet reached the end of the bed. Hands like baseball mitts clutched the sheets to ‘her’ breast. And her face was huge, moonlike, as her eyes watched Red hungrily.
Unsure of what else to do, Red approached the bed carefully. She remembered the shapeshifter and how he’d taken on the appearance of the billboard model but failed to think of adding colour to his skin or hair. Its abilities were impressive but its judgement was sorely lacking. If she simply turned and fled though, it would chase her. And who knew who or what it would look like when it next came for her.
“Grandma, what big eyes you have,” Little Red Riding Hood said.
“The better to see you with, my dear.” Wolfe’s eyeballs bulged from their sockets as if for emphasis, as snakes seemed to writhe beneath Grandma’s face.
Red placed the basket at the foot of Grandma’s bed. The frame creaked as the shapeshifter adjusted his giant frame. Red kept her hand against the holster on her leg.
“Grandma, what big hands you have.”
“The better to touch you with, my dear.” The tip of Wolfe’s tongue appeared to moisten his old woman lips but it grew too long and thick in his mouth.
“And Grandma, what big teeth you have.”
“The better to nibble, that slender, young neck of yours, my dear.”
Wolfe started forward, wearing his imperfect disguise. Red ripped the gun out of her holster and opened fire. Her first several shots punched right through Wolfe’s face, splitting his head open like a rotten melon. Red aimed through the blanket and unloaded another several bullets into his chest. Each blast bounced off the walls of the small room. Muzzle discharges lit the space and burning twists from the bedclothes filled the air. Wolfe roared and thrashed. Red backed across the room, firing. By the time she reached the doorway, the gun ran empty. Wolfe fell backward, going limp.
Red suspected her grandmother must be dead, having encountered the shapeshifter, but she called out anyway. “Grandma? Grandma, can you hear me?”
Wolfe exploded from the bed. A lamp on the bedside table shattered as it was hit by a flailing tentacle. Taking on the shape of a vast, bearlike, shambling thing, Wolfe stormed across the room. Fur and spikes covered much of his shifting mass, with scaly tentacles creating a sphere of immediate danger in all directions. He moved through the bedroom like a hurricane. Red flung herself away from the door and fled down the hall.
“You’ll be mine! The better you should come to me easily, my dear!”
Red knew her Grandma kept weaponry secreted all around the house. As she ran to the landing, Red reached under a narrow table to the side of the hallway and a small handgun slipped right into her hand. Wolfe erupted through the bedroom doorway, smashing the frame and crashing into the opposite wall. Red fired as she kept moving but the small calibre rounds did little damage.
Red sprinted to the stairs. Wolfe tore down the hallway behind her, shockingly fast. Something struck Red from behind and she spilled down the carpeted steps. She fell end over end, losing her grip on the empty handgun. Her arms and ribs jarred. Red ended up sprawled on her back at the foot of the stairs, momentarily dazed.
Wolfe took the fast route, bashing through the already damaged bannister and leaping to the ground floor. He landed easily on legs with doglike joints. Stalking toward Red, tentacles threshing, Wolfe grew and opened a long, vertical mouth like a gash down the centre of his chest. Looming, Wolfe had Red completely at his mercy.
Suddenly, the front door of Grandma’s house slammed open. With thick shoulders and a leather coat, the man that Red thought of as the Woodsman filled the doorway. He clutched one of his axes in his gloved hands. Behind the lenses of the Woodsman’s gas mask, his eyes widened in surprise as he saw the creature. To his credit, he only stared for a moment before lunging inward and burying the axe in Wolfe’s side. Bloodless flesh parted and the shapeshifter roared in pain and surprise.
Red used the opportunity to flip over and scramble across the lobby. An old fashioned umbrella stand rested by the front closet. Umbrella handles bristled from the top, along with the polished walnut stock of a pump action shotgun. Red got to her feet and yanked the shotgun loose. She thumbed off the safety, ratcheted the pump action, and fired. The blast narrowly missed the Woodsman, patterning Wolfe’s shifting side. Behind his gas mask, the Woodsman glanced in Red’s direction. Red had no idea why he was there. Maybe he was hunting Wolfe, maybe he’d been hunting her. At that moment, it didn’t matter. Red circled the beast, firing. The Woodsman planted his axe in Wolfe’s torso again and Wolfe pulled away, tearing the axe handle from the Woodsman’s grip. He grabbed for another one of his axes, quickly rearming himself.
Red emptied the shotgun and tossed it aside. “Hold it! Keep it distracted!” She yelled to her new companion.
Knowing exactly where she was going, Red darted out of the room and into another corridor. The Woodsman maintained his silence as he battled with the shapeshifter. He used wide, powerful swings to hack at Wolfe’s sides.
Wolfe, in spite of his size advantage, backed away, whimpering. A couple of tentacles were sliced off and lay, wriggling, on the ground. The Woodsman sensed an advantage and pushed forward, raising his axe over his head. Wolfe looked wounded and weak but as the Woodsman heaved down, another giant set of jaws grew and yawned open. Four foot tall, the mouth opened wide, fringed with teeth like daggers. Wolfe pounced, and the jaws snapped shut on his attacker. Fangs impaled the Woodsman from both sides. Wolfe’s mouth smothered his face and chest. The shapeshifter fell on the Woodsman, ripping and tearing and absorbing him into its biomass.
Red’s grandmother did her best work in the same place as all grandmothers, the kitchen. That was where Grandma kept the best of her armoury. Red slammed into the kitchen and did a quick mental inventory. Bullets seemed to have little effect on the shapeshifter, he healed too fast. Red went to the oven. Grandma had never baked a tray of cookies in her life. Instead, Red yanked the oven door open and pulled out what looked like a metal backpack painted olive green. The backpack attached to a stiff hose and a skinny, gunlike object. Red hurriedly strapped the pack over her shoulders and took hold of the gunlike nozzle. On her way back out of the kitchen, Red stopped by the fruit bowl. Nestled among the wax fruit with their unnatural sheens was a single pineapple-style grenade. Red took it and shoved it into her vest.
In the front parlour, Wolfe digested the Woodsman’s additional biomass. He grew even larger, adapting and changing shape. His new form looked humanoid, hulking and over ten foot tall with doglike legs. One enormously muscular arm dangled off his right side, the hand tipped with claws like railroad spikes, while a swarm of tentacles sprouted from his left shoulder. Patches of fur, scales, and mottled human skin covered his mismatched body. Not one but two heads, undersized for the overall frame of his torso and limbs, grew from Wolfe’s shoulders. One resembled his greyish ‘Wolfe’ persona while the other took after Red’s grandmother. A vertical mouth split his chest open. Coughing and hacking, it spat out a chewed gas mask and the remains of the Woodsman’s clothes and axes.
Red reentered the room and Wolfe swung toward her. His eyes shone with delight.
“Little Red Riding Hood, join us! Join me! One way or another, we will be together!” Voices came from both heads and from mouths on Wolfe’s chest and back.
In reply, Red hefted the nozzle of her newly acquired flamethrower. A tiny flame flickered at the end of the barrel. As Red squeezed the trigger, a tongue of fire exploded from the muzzle, crossed the room, and engulfed Wofle’s monstrous form. The shapeshifter’s multitude of mouths screamed. A stench of burning hair, roasting flesh and jellied petrol filled the air. Red strode forward, hosing Wolfe with blazing napalm. Outer layers of flesh blackened and melted off, falling to the floor.
Red’s flamethrower only took a few seconds of sustained fire to burn through all of its fuel. Its effect on Wolfe was thankfully significant. More charred flesh melted and fell away, leaving small fires across the lobby. The creature looked visibly shrunken and its two heads kept screaming but as soon as Red stopped firing the flames began to gutter out. Oily smoke poured off of Wolfe. He stood straighter as if already recovering. One clawed foot took a step forward. The vertical mouth split open, lined with fangs. Tonguelike tentacles wormed their way out from deep inside. Red pulled at the straps and dumped her empty flamethrower.
“Hey, Grandma, what a big mouth you have.” Red pulled the grenade out of her vest. “All the better to eat this with!”
Red bit down on the grenade’s ring and ripped it free. Dumping the spoon, she lobbed the grenade across the parlour. It sailed straight into Wolfe’s enormous mouth. The shapeshifter swallowed without thinking. Red ducked and covered her face.
From within the burned shapeshifter was a thunderous boom, muffled by layers of wet meat. The explosion ripped Wolfe apart, disintegrating a large section of his body in a flash of burning shrapnel. Burnt and spongy flesh splattered the surrounding walls, some pieces as thin as paint. Red felt herself shoved sideways by the shockwave, and some tatters of meat hit her in the back. When she looked back, nothing significant remained of Wolfe’s mass. Nothing larger than a handspan. After what she’d seen, however, Red worried it wouldn’t be enough.
Minutes later, Red was back on her bike and speeding away from her grandmother’s compound. She’d only hung back long enough to collect a few items of sentimental value and to activate Grandma’s failsafe. Grandma believed in being prepared for anything. Buried in the foundations of her compound home was a fuel-air bomb with a blast yield equivalent to ten tonnes of TNT. As Red sped away, it triggered. The house and everything within, including Wolfe’s remains, disappeared in a fiery flash. The blast took half the abandoned neighbourhood with it, reducing dozens of old houses to rubble. Surrounding streets were chewed apart. So hot was the core of the explosion that it sucked in all the surrounding oxygen to fuel itself, creating a vacuum that turned into a blazing inferno. Nothing could survive. Red felt the pressure wave and heat on her back. A glowing mushroom cloud, sucking all of the dirt and debris into a rising column, grew above the ruined city like a reminder of the day the bombs almost wiped it all out.
Red turned onto Woods Ave and aimed herself in the direction of home, sad for her Grandma but relieved it was over. Dripping down Little Red Riding Hood’s red riding hood, however, some of Wolfe’s flesh rolled itself into a ball. It moved with deliberation and purpose, several pieces coalescing near the small of Red’s back. And there it huffed, and it puffed, and it waited.
Sean: I love reinterpretations of stories and characters. I mean, obviously fairytales are kind of overdone – there are so many reinterpretations and reimaginings and “stories of what really happened” already, but for some reason I’m just a sucker for seeing something broken down into its component parts and built into something new.
If you’re a fan of older music, you might have caught a couple of references to the song Li’l Red Riding Hood by Sam the Sham. I was obsessed with that song for a hot minute years and years ago, when I was a teenager. Check out that video if you’ve never seen it before, well worth your time.
Next Week’s Inspiration: Cloaker