Lucien galloped through the tunnel. His claws scraped past moss and scratched steel. He smelled and tasted the wild in the distance. An ambrosial aroma compared to the metallic tang of the tunnel’s innards.
Ahead, he saw the guarding House sigil, pulsing scarlet. Its glare shown faintly in the sunlight and looked more pink than red so diluted by the day. He slowed down just before reaching the edge of the tunnel, was careful not to pass it. That would be unfortunate. The singed wolf fur and dried blood he saw melded to the tunnel’s metal mouth were a testament to its power.
Though wolves frequented the area, those of natural stock wouldn’t come so close; instinct wouldn’t allow it. Lucien knew this but was unconcerned; he welcomed the threat. The body was now his and he wouldn’t give it up. Recovering it would come at a heavy cost. The Neuri would do well to remember this. If not, he’d remind them.
Still, he’d trade in this body for his former frame. He’d do it without a second thought. But he hadn’t been given a choice. Until Hell deemed that both he and Bailien had paid the penance for their erstwhile disgrace, this bondage would continue.
Now within the sigil’s radius, the sigil beneath the fur on his left arm awakened, looking like a forest fire blazing across black woods. The one on the tunnel wall ceased pulsing and blazed bright before it went out, as did the sigil on his arm.
As he emerged from the tunnel, day glinted his good eye to a slit, the lidless one to tears. It had been a long time since he’d ventured out into the world. Six years since the last hunt. His eyes would adjust; they always did, on these rare occasions Astor allowed amnesty.
His limbs beat with the pulse of his racing heart and his tongue lolled from his mouth. Hot breath visibly puffed past fangs. His great paws dug past winter-hardened earth and kicked up shovels of it. Though the sun had risen, it gave far less heat than it had centuries ago. It was enough to melt the light sheen of frost that swathed the forest’s foliage. Flora peeked past rime; stalactites broke free from branches. Underbrush shed their glacial crowns. Lakes and ponds thawed.
Yet, the wolf in him sensed that the landscape was dying despite these renegade growths, these pockets of life. He heard nature’s whispers pleading the mammal to listen. This kinship hindered thought. The duality sickened him. One of many reasons he hated his current predicament.
His nostrils flared wide. A familiar scent. Lucien stopped and sniffed. Human, with laced blood. A blood slave. Bailien’s thrall. He dropped to his haunches and waited.
Detective Daniel Serf strode toward the crouching creature. Even though Bailien had forewarned him, Serf was unprepared for what he saw. Sitting, Lucien was over six feet. Lucien spread his snout and Serf became captivated with the ivory fangs glistening with saliva. He smelled the stench of decayed and rotting flesh. Serf’s heart hammered his chest. He covered his fear as best as he could and swallowed hard, hoping he wouldn’t stammer when he spoke. “I’m Serf. I’m gonna take you the rest of the way. My car’s parked nearby.”
“I need to feed soon. Are you going to take care of this?” The sound of Lucien’s voice was deep yet piercing, like a blunt weapon that stabbed as well as bludgeoned. Serf was glad that he’d already taken care of Lucien’s nutritional needs.
“Good,” Lucien said. “Take me to Drake’s.”
“Better if you stayed here while I got the car.” Without waiting for a reply, Serf retreated.
Moments later, Serf pulled up. He popped the trunk from the driver’s seat. The enticing scent of fear wafted out from the trunk. Lucien’s stomach rumbled. He sprang from his haunches and lopped to the car. As he did, his bones shifted, limbs contracted, and his muzzle shortened. His entire body scaled itself down. The manacles shrunk with the transformation. By the time he reached the trunk, he physiologically resembled a grey wolf, with a timber wolf’s black pelage.
He dove inside. A gagged, hogtied man stared up at him. The fit was tight, but Lucien didn’t mind. It wouldn’t be snug for long. Serf got out and shut the trunk.
The cramped space within the trunk had become roomier with Lucien’s consumption. He was now working on the breastbone. He shattered the heart’s shield, pushed his jaw through, stabbed his tongue inside, and brought back teasing chunks of the organ.
The car stopped. He heard the driver’s side door open then shut. The trunk popped.
“Sorry to disturb your . . . meal. We’re here,” Serf said, stepping away from the opening.
Lucien hopped from the trunk. Serf suppressed the urge to vomit when he saw what was left of the body. Then he saw Lucien. Moist and congealing blood matted his fur. Strips of flesh hung from his muzzle. As Serf followed the trek of a depending shred of meat clinging to a crimson tainted canine, Lucien’s snout stretched and his head elongated. Bones crackled and muscles convulsed, making popping sounds as they grew. Seconds later, the transformation was complete. Lucien was once more twelve feet long and approximately four hundred pounds. A Neuri’s true form. A Neuri’s battle form.
“Wait in the car. You’ll spoil the scents,” Lucien said, as articulately as one could with a mouth full of fangs and mashed meat.
Serf didn’t need to be told twice. It took every ounce of his will not to race back towards the car. To walk instead and hide his fear.
Lucien sniffed the ground. Drawn to the iron gates where the dead scent was thick. It was one night old. The scent was visible to the werewolf.
Shock widened Lucien’s eyes along with his nostrils. Bailien was right. He smelled sulfur. Only a Winged-One’s scent smelled like sulfur! Only a Winged-One’s scent-trail looked like this! Swirling ribbons of swelling, black, cancerous waves, like a shadow’s penumbra. They were coiling around the gate.
He whined deep in his throat and ran his wet snout up and down the iron, leaving a slick sheen of mucus on the metal. Images exploded in his head.
Alighting on the gate, clawed feet grasp the iron. Moments later, he shoots from the gate and soars to the top floor’s balcony. A thin smile cracks his face.
Lucien’s eyes shot open, the whine now turning into a low growl, then a howl. He knew that face very well. It was the face of his betrayer. The Gatekeeper, Raguel! The Recreant and his betrayer were one in the same. He knew whom he hunted. He knew he’d not deliver him to Astor. Nor to Hell. Astor and Hell could wait. Lucien’s vengeance couldn’t.
He leapt over the gates and charged to the house. Ignoring the front door and without breaking stride, he jumped onto the balcony, a two-story leap. Lucien ducked low as he entered, nostrils flaring, black eyes glinting as he crossed the threshold. His vision doubled as the sulfur scent ran up his nostrils. He saw the room as it was now. He saw the room as it was then.
He saw the Winged-One, Raguel, wrench open the French doors. He saw him head downstairs. Lucien followed him down to the room with the dead children. He saw Drake drag in the child. He saw Raguel knock Drake out with a blow to the head then kick him down the stairs.
He opened his eyes. Where had he been all this time? How had he avoided Hell?
Lucien followed the sulfur scent downstairs, stopped before the basement door, hooked its handle with a claw and flung it open. Entering, he breathed in the basement, dropping to all fours, snout planted to the ground. He circled the casket, whirled around it, kicked up dust clouds, each revolution faster than the last. The dirt stuck to his blood matted fur like beach sand on a wet body.
Again, his vision doubled.
He saw Raguel take Drake’s life. He saw him take Drake’s unlife the next night. Saw him leave with the child.
Why risk addiction? Was it already too late? Lucien thought of the girl. Why take her? Where did he bring her? Though he didn’t know it, he was plagued by as many enigmas as his adversary was. What he did know was that along with The Winged-One’s scent, he also had the girl’s. If he couldn’t find one, he’d find the other.