The forest flanking the road whipped by as they sped to Servanah’s apartment. Beads of sweat glistened on Serf’s brow despite the wind blasting through the windows. With every rattle and thump, he looked in the rearview mirror. He imagined Lucien breaking free from the trunk, pictured him racing along the roof of the car, toward him. His hand went to his weapon. Its grip comforted. Slightly.
Inside the trunk, Lucien felt every bump on the road. His head repeatedly hit the roof. The body beneath him began to stink and stiffen. Lucien didn’t care. Thinking about Raguel replaced hunger. Betrayer and Recreant, one in the same? The Gatemaster? Here? Purely coincidental? Lucien didn’t think so. No demon had ever avoided Hell. An impossibility. Apparently not. Unless he was aided. But why? The Neutrals wouldn’t dare. Unless they were bade to. Was Raguel some celestial pawn? Was someone using him? If so, who and why? This realization disturbed Lucien, for only the adversaries commanded such influence, but it wasn’t enough to steer him away from wrath, from retribution. He didn’t care if any of these questions were answered. Raguel had betrayed Lucien and his legion, deceived them, made them think they could take Heaven, before the Gatemaster Fell himself. And for that, Lucien would kill him. He didn’t care how he’d avoided Hell. Didn’t care if the Neutrals had helped him. Didn’t care if God himself had helped him. All he cared about was slaking his vengeance. Besides, those answers weren’t dependent upon Raguel’s continued existence. He’d resolve those riddles after Raguel’s death.
A familiar scent drifted in through the holes and broke through these distressing thoughts. Lucien’s eyes widened. His body went rigid and a howl tore from his throat.
Hearing the howl, Serf pulled his gun free, turned in his seat and leveled it at the rear window, positive that his nightmare was about to come true. Half of it did. The trunk’s lid blew from its hinges and out leapt Lucien, muscles and bones contorting, elongating, shifting. The cadaver tumbled out. Serf never saw the lid land, but he saw Lucien, now in full transformation, land past the roadside and gallop into the woods.
Serf slammed on the brakes, backed up until he reached the body, and got out. He flung the remains back inside the trunk, jumped back into the driver’s seat, and hit the gas before he’d even closed the door. He couldn’t lose Lucien. He veered into the woods and followed Lucien via the trail the werewolf had made, strewn with torn branches and uprooted foliage.
He had to hurry; Lucien already had a good lead.
Ahead, a log crossed the path, too big to drive over or go around. He stopped the car and got out. Effortlessly, he picked up the log and tossed it into the bushes.
As Serf jogged back to the car, he sensed something. Motion to his right. He froze, peered into the bushes, and caught the glint of an aura, as green as the shrubbery and imbued with a shimmering light as pristine as sunlight reflected off a lake. It was an animal’s aura. A large animal’s aura. Motion again; this time off to his left. He whipped his head there and saw another emerald flash. Then he heard rustling behind him. There was movement all around him now. He pulled out his gun, turned around and ran back to the car.
As he slammed the door shut and holstered his weapon, something hit the rear bumper and jolted the car. Serf punched the gas. The car went nowhere. He felt the car buckle like a bronco tethered to a post. He kept his foot on the pedal and mentally urged the car forward, afraid to look in the rear view mirror. Then he heard a tearing metallic ripping sound followed by a screeching pop just before the car pulled free. Only then did he check the mirror.
He remembered what his master had called them, Neuri, but to Serf they were just werewolves. There were two of them, same size, same claws, same fangs as Lucien’s, standing on hind legs, muscles bunched, rippling and bulging, tails swishing behind them.
One of them dropped to all fours and tore after the car. The other brandished the bumper above its head and flung it. The bumper sliced through the air and shattered the rear window, pierced the shotgun seat and impaled it to the glove compartment.
Serf veered left and nearly missed a tree that seemed to have grown directly in his path. Bark grazed against metal and scraped off layers of paint along with the right side mirror. Past the obstacle and back on track, he glanced in the rearview. Their speed shocked him. They were gaining, roaring as they ran, ears plastered to heads, jaws parted revealing rows of overcrowded fangs. Killing perfections.
Serf’s foot never left the pedal.
Brambles and branches snapped; their serrated ends slashed fur. Lucien ignored the pain and charged through the woods. As he approached a clearing, the scent grew stronger. It led him past a pebbled lakeside boarded by trees and thickets.
He froze. He was close. The dead scent was ubiquitous. He lifted his muzzle, tested the air and tasted it, separated the living scents from the lifeless one. He locked in on the dead scent and growled. Then made a mad dash up a steep incline. At its summit he stopped.
The house was two stories, enshrouded with flora and vines, windows and front door barely visible. What was visible was the Winged-One’s scent, branching off in two different directions, one trail leading up to the second story window, the other peeling around the house. He chose the latter.
He saw the aroma’s black bands congregating around a closed, slanted cellar door abutting the structure. He didn’t bother opening it. He simply crashed through it.
Though he saw the black strips swirling in the air, he could tell that Raguel hadn’t been here for two nights. The visual trail was thicker at Drake’s, more solid. Here, they were already beginning to fade away, dissolving to particles, looking like ashes drifting in the air. But the sulfur scent was still strong. That would linger for quite some time.
He ran over to the loose planks on the ground, sniffed around them, then shed them aside with a single swipe from his claws and breathed in the scent. This was where Raguel slept during the day.
He went back outside, mounted the façade and scaled it, making his way to the open window. The fur along his back bristled, porcupined stiff, warning him that danger was near. He sniffed the air without stopping. Neuri. He growled. He’d not let them hinder his hunt. Let them come. If they dared.
He pushed aside the drapes and stared into the room. Evaporating black bands wisped around an oak desk situated in the room’s center, with matching chair pushed in, a ceiling fan above it.
As he leapt into the room, he caught another scent, a living scent. He ignored the Recreant’s and traced this new one to the desk, to its only draw. He opened it with a claw and found himself staring at a black bible.
With his claw, he peeled back the cover and read the inscription within.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Father Randolph Purgeon
Roman. Was that the name Raguel was going by now? Demon and priest friends! He breathed in the priest’s scent and stored it. He now had three scents to hunt.
Serf’s eyes ping ponged from rearview mirror to road. Behind him, the Neuri were in full gallop, slashing at the car with their claws, racking and tearing into the metal. He imagined what those claws could do to flesh, specifically his own. He thought about shooting at them, but they were too fast, too agile, ducking and weaving behind the car, constantly crisscrossing. No way he’d hit them; he’d only waste precious ammo.
He came upon a clearing, went past a lake, and zoomed up a steep slope. If he could have gone any faster, he would have. He was about to steer right when he realized that what he at first thought was part of the forest was actually a house.
One Neuri slammed into the car, driver side, forced Serf away from the house and back towards the woods. Then the other joined, lowered its shoulder, and pummeled the car along as well.
Serf tried side swiping them, but they dodged the blow and darted into the underbrush, only to surge back, drop their heads, and smash back into the car. One head hit the rear. The other punched in the driver’s door, imploded it, shoving Serf against the bumper impaling the passenger seat. Sharp pain stabbed into his thigh and blunt pain bludgeoned his shoulder. He dove back for the wheel, winced and sucked in his breath. He’d felt his shoulder pop and knew it was dislocated. Felt the warm stream running down his leg and knew it had been pierced. He looked down. He hated being right. The blow had crushed the door inward and parts of it were now married to his leg and imbedded in his flesh.
They rocked the car toward the woods, tag-teamed attacks. One would strike and retreat, then the other would rush in, and unlike a boxer’s one two combo, both blows were hard, with no leading jab, just knockout punches.
Instead of bracing or veering away from the next bash, he turned into it. Perfectly timed.
Crunching metal. A grunting bray.
Serf checked the mirror. Both Neuri were gone. He didn’t want to press his luck. He swerved toward the house. He might have a chance if he could just reach Lucien.
Hope died forty yards away from the house. He caught movement from the corner of his right eye. Four, not two Neuri, slammed into the car.
Serf thought he was flying instead of driving, and in truth, he was, for five eternal seconds. The blow had lifted the car off the grass. Serf saw the world in front of him drop, skew as the car tumbled in the air. It landed on its side, teetered there for a moment, and then fell on its roof, Serf’s forehead slamming into it.
He saw the house, past the bumper, through the passenger side window, past all the blood pouring in his eyes. What a tease, seeing salvation so near. Earth pressed against his face. He’d have to make it past the bumper and through the window; the wrecked door looked like crumpled paper.
He heard them howling. Heard their padded feet. Though cramped, he managed withdrawing his thigh from the metal puncturing it and freed himself from the driver side door. Thankfully, none of the metal had punctured his arteries. He thought of trying to bash aside the bumper, but decided to go for his gun first; he hoped it was still sitting within its sheath under his left arm, but when he tried reaching for it, he hissed, forgetting that his right shoulder was dislocated.
He grasped the ball of his shoulder with his left hand, gritted his teeth, and pushed. He felt it shift, felt bone grate on bone. It popped. He screamed as it settled back in place, he thanked Bailien’s blood for giving him the strength to relocate his shoulder. He reached for the gun again. Just as his fingers touched the handle, a howl, too close for comfort, nearly ruptured his eardrums.
A wolf’s head filled the entire opening where a window used to be. Its muzzle was within the car, fangs flashed and snapped, saliva dripped and pooled onto the seat. But it could go no further. Two things impeded progress. The bumper was one of them. The other was simply the size of its head. The window frame was too narrow for such a massive crown.
The Neuri alleviated this situation promptly by removing its snout from the window, grasping the door, and ripping it free, before flinging it over its shoulder. Now the only thing between it and its meal was the bumper. As claws met rubber, Serf’s hand found steel. As the Neuri tore the bumper free, Serf unsheathed the gun. And as the werewolf shoved its snout back inside, Serf pulled the trigger.
Its entire head came apart and splattered Serf. The detective grinned past the gore.
He saw the fur turn to skin. Saw the fangs turn to teeth. Crawling towards the window, he pushed away a section of its snout as it transformed into a human nostril. When he reached the opening, he pushed aside the human body spewing gouts of blood from its headless neck, and got out.
Smoke streamed from the ruined vehicle. Serf jumped to his feet, trained the weapon before him, swiveled it in every direction, ready to pull the trigger at the first thing that moved. The three remaining Neuri, just sitting there, on their haunches and staring at him with yellow, swirling feral eyes, somehow scared him more than a full blown attack.
They stared at the gun. Serf sensed their collective fear. The middlemost one opened its jaws, growled low, and sniffed the air. “Silver bullets,” he said. “You’ve killed our brother.” The alpha’s voice crashed over fangs that seemed to shred the words leaving his mouth.
Serf said nothing, training the gun on the speaker.
“Let us retrieve the body of our king, Lycaon, and we’ll let you live.”
“I can’t do that.” Serf backed away, limping as he did, favoring his right foot as he eased around the car. He’d never outrun them. Still, he’d take down as many of them as he could before they killed him. “I’m more afraid of my master than I am of you. You can be killed.” He shook the gun for emphasis. “He can’t.”
The lead Neuri sniffed the air again. “You’re enslaved by the blood.” Serf heard the disgust in its voice. “This is your last chance, thrall.”
He was almost around the front end of the car, his limp less pronounced. He thought of checking his brow wound, but decided against it, reluctant to have only one hand on the weapon. Besides, his head felt better anyway.
“Back up!” Serf aimed the gun on the speaker. “Or Alpha here gets it.” The other two looked to their leader. Only when he began backing away did they comply.
Serf was no longer limping. He gauged the distance between them. About fifteen feet. Maybe as much as twenty. It was now or never. He gave them his back and bolted for the house, beating down the primal fear that argued against this possibly mortally fatal decision, for to flee from a wolf is to acknowledge that you are prey.
He didn’t hear them giving chase. He didn’t hear that dreadful gallop or the braying primordial screams of the hunt. But what he did hear was the alpha’s loud howl. The other two Neuri loaned their voices to his. Serf knew those howls would soon be answered.
Ten yards from the house, Serf fell to his knees. He looked over his shoulder. The werewolves were crawling over the car, bearing fangs, wary of the gun but still coming. Serf bounced to his feet, far quicker than he’d thought possible. Fear had its uses. Serf practically flew the rest of the way, his legs pumping beneath him, faster than a mortal’s ever could.
Now he heard them give chase. Now he heard that dreadful gallop. This time, he didn’t look back.
Several feet before the door, he dove, went through it, ripped it from its hinges. He didn’t have enough time to turn, aim, and fire. Thankfully, he didn’t have to do anything at all. Lucien saw to that.
“It is me you want!” Lucien dropped from the window and landed on all fours, chest out, rippling like a volcanic eruption. His howl blasted forth. The charging Neuri skidded to a stop and plowed up earth and grass. They fanned out, eyes locked on Lucien, on the stolen body of their dead king, circling him, ears erect, fur bristling, lips curled up, snarling and displaying ivory incisors, lashing and snapping.
“Give us back the body of our king!” the alpha said. He stood, his scouting party followed suit. He’d made sure Lucien was between him and the house, where the thrall with a gun full of silver bullets was.
Inside the house, Serf went for the window with legs that felt encased in concrete, weighted down by fear and dread. He clasped the gun in both hands, reassured by its weight, especially its ammo.
“Which coven will pay? Whose House?”
Lucien was glad that his thick coarse fur covered Asmodeus’s seal. “I know not,” he lied. The sun glinted off his black onyx orbs and gave them a red tint. “This vessel now belongs to me!”
“You don’t want a war! Give the body back, demon.” The alpha smelled the repugnant stench wafting from his dead king’s reanimated body. This was an abomination. The possessed vessel reeked, loaned weight to the insult. Made a mockery of something as sacred as his former sire’s body. This atrocity had to end and the violators had to be punished.
“You know I helped create this world,” Lucien said
“You’ve helped destroy it! Like all your kind!” The alpha retorted.
“If you want the vessel, come for it!”
The alpha remained standing on his hind legs, while the other two crouched, dropping to all fours, ready to spring. The entire forest was silent, as if holding its collective breath, an expectant witness waiting for the battle to unfold. The silence wouldn’t last. The alpha growled low, a deep bass-like sound. His flankers answered back.
They charged. The flanking Neuri on the left bolted by and made for the house. The other charged onward with its leader.
Serf shattered the window with his gun. He knew he had to make the shot count. He knew that he only had one chance to stop the charging beast. But he couldn’t get a bead on him. He took the shot anyway. And missed.
Serf turned, gun raised, as the Neuri ran through the doorway. The doorframe came with him, as did the wall it was attached to. The werewolf skittered through splintered wood, banked right, and leapt. Serf pulled the trigger as the Neuri landed on him.
Had he hit it? He thought he did. It wasn’t moving. He tried squeezing his way out, but couldn’t budge the ten-foot wolf. Then he felt the body shift and twitch, felt the load lighten, saw limbs shrinking, then flesh sucking in fur.
Outside, the alpha soared for Lucien’s neck, but the former demon lord caught the spearing muzzle before it reached its mark, and dug his claws into the back of the alpha’s head. His silver manacles pressed against his enemy’s ears, searing away fur.
The alpha’s jaws snapped, inches from Lucien’s neck. Fangs pulled back fur instead of flesh. He dug his fore claws into Lucien’s sides, pushed past pelt and into skin, their tips scraping the ribcage. Lucien roared just as the other Neuri had decided to pounce. Its jaws missed Lucien’s torso, but bit into his rump.
Lucien lost his balance and all three werewolves tumbled in a tangle of fur, flashing fangs, claws, and blood.
The alpha beneath him shifted. By the time Lucien noticed what was happening, the alpha had transformed into a grey wolf, whose head was much smaller than it had been in its battle form. Slipping free from the demon lord’s grasp, he darted away, then circled back, charging towards him, transforming as he came.
Lucien threw himself sideways, backhanded the Neuri now clinging to his loin across the right side of its muzzle. He followed the blow by pouncing on the Neuri’s chest, then swiping at its face, both arms blurring, claws scooping up clunks of blood-matted fur and wads of flesh.
Back at the window, Serf leveled the gun and aimed it at the alpha, now in mid leap, jaws parted, soaring straight for Lucien’s back. He emptied the magazine into the alpha. Not one shot missed. A human body landed on Lucien, which he barely noticed.
Blood pumped from the Neuri’s torn neck. His shattered lower jaw hung, skewing to the right side of his face. One eye blinked rapidly, while pink pulp and bloody fur buried the other. His ears were dangling flaps; milk-white cartilage protruded from the tips.
“Serf!” Lucien roared as he stood.
“I’m here,” Serf said, emerging from the house with his gun still clasped in his hand.
“This one still lives! Finish him!”
“My pleasure.” Serf made his way over, pulled out a fresh clip from his jacket, and reloaded. He put a bullet in what was left of the Neuri’s head. As he sheathed his weapon, a series of howls erupted from the forest.