Victor Chirac looked down at the body of the little black girl lying on the kitchen table. As much as he would have enjoyed a quick snack, shifter blood was poisonous to his kind.
Regardless, this girl looked good enough to eat.
Her dark complexion brought back memories. His eyes dilated from the cool rush of memories. Fleeing the French Revolution, a war that purchased for the world the growth of democracy at the price of royal blood, he was tired.
So tired, in fact, Victor Chirac didn't even tried to hide his vampirism from his scurvy-stricken crew. Victor arrived in the colony of Saint-Domingue, trading one revolution for another. He hoped to disappear in the New World.
Victor remembered the day of his arrival on the colony. Half the men aboard had served his purpose as food to endure the treacherous Atlantic crossing with his health intact. The other half were wise to not speak of the deaths of their crew-mates.
The rebellion had been well underway for years but far from the port city his ship had disembarked at. To the unknowing, one could hardly tell that a war or any great conflict was destined to engulf to this colony in blood and fire.
Victor Chirac was still adapting to vampire life. He was going through that inevitable phase in every vampire's life where his every step was followed by a sense of invincibility. Being undead could do that to one's mutable ego.
There was no means to rush the revelation of his vulnerability. He'd have to learn the hard part. Even when the world ran out of food and shelter, hard lessons about life were always in abundance. Never a famine of humble pie.
On the island of Hispaniola, the colony of Saint-Domingue metamorphosed into the country known today as Haiti. Victor despised so-called "history" books that often lauded their slave rebellion as a milestone of this and that.
In fact, it was a bloody grotesque thing, an opinion that should carry some weight coming from an actual bloodsucker. Even with the advantages of his undead flesh, he died a hundred times on that tiny blood-soaked half-island.
Still, Nergal would not be pleased to learn that his family of freelancers had been whittled down to one scared runaway. The Bamgbala family had served Nergal as steadfast, loyal and faithful worshippers for five generations.
Nergal had groomed many non-humans to serve as followers. Victor Chirac no longer believed he was any different from the others in either esteem or value. Nergal had a whole chessboard of pawns, knights, bishops and rooks at his disposal.
Though it was true that, like all demons except one, Nergal could not set foot on the earthly plane. Interestingly enough, the highest imperial decrees did not forbid him from speaking with those who sought him out by name.
All that was before his imprisonment for crimes against the laws of the infernal abyss. The thought of Hell having any laws amused Victor Chirac. Hell ruled by chaos and violence. It should not have any court of appeals.
You-Who-Know coming to retrieve Nergal himself was the reason that he couldn't leave the sanctuary of J'Adore. The reason he couldn't walk about. Victor always had to act as his will on the outside, a grueling unending task.
Unfortunately, neither Victor nor any of his trusted lieutenants could survey the site at this hour. It was sun-up. That made it a chore best suited for his more heliophilic servants. The search team searched the sewers extensively.
After a hour of mucking around in raw sewage, the team returned toting the body of this deceased were-hyena girl. Death blow appeared to come from a downward penetration of the aorta from a blade made of silvered steel.
Victor Chirac cursed under his breath. A sign that a hunter had taken this poor child's life. A demon as canny as Nergal would not miss this. Then, the demands for investigation would follow, leading to even more wasted time.
Once upon a time, at the turn of the 20th century, Victor had toyed with the idea of a degree in medicine. Though he had no interest in saving lives, he, like all vampires, held a biding interest in the mechanisms of the human body.
With his keen hearing, he could hear the slightest heart murmur as clear as a knock on the door. With his sense of smell, he could detect all the odors a human body secreted into the air. In short, he could read a body like a map.
While he decided against the degree, Victor still expanded on his practical knowledge of human anatomy whenever he could. Were-hyenas, even dead ones, were, more or less, human enough for observation in this fragile guise.
"Am I interrupting something?" Nergal appeared next to him. Victor hammered down the urge to yell at him like a father loosing his venom on his errant son. Victor shook his head and Nergal engaged the corpse with a knowing gaze.
The telekinesis he could stomach and even the telepathy he could neutralize. But the teleportation was the most frightening of all of Nergal's hell talents. Nergal could be anywhere at any given moment within the J'Adore grounds.
Simply put, Victor enjoyed no privacy in his own lair. "She is quite lovely." Nergal leered at the little girl's nude corpse. "What a waste." Nergal raised a hand and flames ate up the corpse. He wasn't a fan of his pyrokinesis either.
Victor bared his fangs at the old demon. "Was this your brilliant plan? To send a child to do a man's job?" These displays of hostility no longer frightened Victor to perform. "I could have done this with far greater ease."
By definition of being a demon, Nergal was pure evil though and though. Despite his fundamental nature, he was what Shakespeare would call a plain-dealing villain. He had plans and patience to execute them.
Nergal could have hoisted him through the building material of the ceiling and roof into the fiery embrace of the sun above. He could even snap the fingers of his human host and make Victor Chirac burst into flames.
All that would have been a waste of valued resources. Nergal needed Victor and had a marked disdain for wastefulness of any sort. His cold-blooded approach to management provided Nergal with some practical limitations.
Nergal smiled at his outburst. "My plan … was the height of simplicity. The Bamgbala clan were to lure out those responsible for the asuras' deaths."
Victor looked confused. "The asuras were beheaded in the underground city of Agartha. Their killers would have to be hunters to do that. I should have known. They were too sure that no hunter was ever get the best of them."
Nergal continued, content that Victor had caught up with the rest of the class. "But their motives turned to vengeance when the hunters succeeded in thinning their ranks." Nergal zeroed in on Victor's eyes in earnest.
"Somewhere out there is the mind of a were-hyena who has the information I seek. He must be found and brought to me so that I may … interrogate him." Were-hyenas were not immune to telepathy. Nothing truly living was.
Torture would only serve to vent his rage on an apostate within his church. Nergal had run out of entertaining uses for the young man on the run. When the two crossed again, he would make a sport of drawing out his slow death.
Nergal smiled. "You have your charge." With that, Nergal vanished to another part of J'Adore. Victor racked his brain for a solution to Nergal's problem. His fears of him demanding a full investigation were confirmed.
If the target were human, it would be as simple as placing a missing person report. But he wasn't human. He was just a scared were-hyena boy desperate to get his own vengeance but terrified of being at the receiving end of one.
Victor would need a resource that could hunt non-humans. Victor looked over at Natasha and Piotr. They were prime candidates for an extensive man-hunt. They had hearts of killers with those iron-clad nerves of trackers.
Regardless of their well-honed bloodlust and experience, Natasha and Piotr were hampered by their vampirism. The hunt might require keeping active daylight hours, an impossibility for those easily seared by direct sunlight.
Victor cupped his mouth with both hands. His mind had betrayed him. Whether he knew it or not, his mind had been leaning in the direction of one option. A desperate option but the only one available to them at the time.
He knew a gifted coordinator of shady assets who could hunt this beast during the day. Nathaniel was a connoisseur when it came to the meat of sapient creatures. He would enjoy the challenge. "Get me Senator Grimm."
Natasha and Piotr winced at the sound of the name. "Now." Victor tried to speak to their unspoken anguish by adding, "Please." This would be a terrible risk. Senator Nathaniel Grimm was a tad unpredictable in terms of assets.
The scene between Noah Walker and Samantha Hilson had all the earmarks of young love. The fumbling way he moved in for the first kiss. Samantha's inexperienced attempt at coquettishness.
For all its realism, one could not blame Noah for believing it was really happening, his first kiss on top of his bed in the middle of the night.
The sudden shock of wakefulness and the attendant comprehension that he had dreamed that encounter filled Noah with a quiet rage as if something valuable had been stolen from him.
All the rejections and humiliations of his transient love life had painted a very clear picture of the outcome of such an experience in real life. Sammy, for whatever reason, had saved his life. He had read too much into that. It was natural response to a very stressful situation.
Someday, his presumption of her feelings would get his fragile heart cleaved in two. Samantha was way way out of his league. Even from next door, she might as well be a hundred miles away.
Noah had decided to give up on her. He had a lifetime of future rejections and humiliations to look forward to. He wanted a break, however temporary, from the constant and inevitable way life frequently screwed him over.
Sammy was a beautiful ideal. God only knew how much more crushing and disappointing a reality she would turn out to be.
Noah was doing something Dad had warned him about. He was performing the equivalent of a psycho-spiritual transfusion, emptying all the blood from his body and filling himself with the hunt, a pure and sacred thing when done properly.
Noah didn't want to be a mewling scared human lusting after another mewling scared human. He wanted to be invincible, a beast of great power and presence that could hide indefinitely from the trials and tribulations of mere mortals.
It was an insane wish for an insane world. Noah didn't want to a person anymore. A person would be afraid of the were-hyena still out there plotting his revenge. A person would still be afraid of the dark after numerous sojourns into its keep. A person was everything Noah didn't want to be anymore. A person was someone who would get himself killed over nothing.
Noah would sometimes see Sammy at school. He would catch himself staring at her until she noticed. Then, he pretended that he had been looking at something else or scanning back and forth to make her seem like just one of a dozen things he was scrutinizing at the moment.
Noah Walker was sick to death of being the lovesick nerd. When he saw how guys acted around Sammy, he could barely resist the overwhelming urge to bury his head in his arms. Sammy could have any guy she wanted. He was done pretending that he ever had a chance with her.
Noah rolled over in his bed and retreated into the safe of another dream. The expression in your dreams meant a lot to Noah. It meant, at least on some level, Sammy could be his girlfriend. It meant, at least on some level, life didn't always have to screw him over. Noah fell back to sleep.
Samantha Hilson cursed like the proverbial sailor as her feet carved a groove into the drywall.
She had tried everything. The direct approach. The indirect approach. She dressed sluttier. She dressed less slutty. Hell, she even took her sister Deanna's ill-conceived advice of trying to make Noah jealous by flirting with other guys at school. It was a long shot … and it didn't pay off.
Nothing worked. Noah might as well be on another planet. Deanna then offered another bit of advice. "Forget him," she said with the condescension of someone informing her that one plus one was indeed two. To her, it was the most obvious thing in the world.
"If he wants to act like nothing happened between you two, it is time to introduce him to a little friend I like to call the friend zone." Deanna, being an outed lesbian at a very young age, knew a lot about mending a broken heart.
It almost sounded a good option until she added, "Boy's a loser anyways." Samantha greeted her teeth. Noah was different. Noah was special. She could feel it.
"Whatever," Deanna intoned with the intentional empty-headedness of a SoCal beach blonde. "Night, sis." Deanna clicked off the light to Samantha's room and crossed the hallway to her own bedroom. Samantha wanted a second opinion. She stared out her window at the Walkers' home.
Dad said they weren't even human. He didn't mean it to sound the way it did. He only meant it to excuse their pathological reliance on blades and hand-to-hand weapons. Not being human was supposed to somehow give the Walkers the right to fight a modern war with medieval weaponry.
Maybe Deanna was right. Maybe Noah was a loser. Maybe his whole family was a bunch of losers. Suddenly, the thought of Noah's hands all over her, the keystone of many a nocturnal fantasies, quietly sickened her.
Noah wasn't even human. He was wolf-boy, a freak of nature hidden among other freaks of nature. Samantha stared at the marks on the walls.
Suddenly, she was at peace.
Samantha Hilson took a long drawn-out sigh. She was doing something her father often warned her about. She was quitting something before she had even gotten started. If Noah really was over and done it, she had to be sure. Not just kind of sure. The kind of certainty born of wisdom.
Mom and Dad taught her the trade of a burglar. She knew how to break into houses. The skill aided in the investigation portion of any long-running hunt. Hunters needed a lot of facts to point their various weapons in the right direction. Such facts were often hidden behind locked doors.
In a way, Samantha too was mining for information, gaining the necessary facts for a hunt. She was hunting a wolf-boy in his own house with only one difference? When she was done, he would be allowed to live.
Sam could only imagine what Deanna would have to say about her new strategy. It was beyond modern dating. It was beyond aggressive. It was beyond slutty. It was beyond any category of sexual pursuit. Sam was breaking into the boy's bedroom to get a chance to see his … reaction.
Sam's heart crawled its way up her chest and camped out at the top of her esophagus just below her tonsils. Sam nudged the half-dressed sleeping Noah. He moaned and turned over.
Suddenly, she didn't feel like an intrepid explorer in forbidden territory. She felt like a girl half out of her mind over a boy who wasn't even a 6 in terms of attractiveness. Samantha sighed. "This sucks."
What did she really expect to happen? For Noah to wake instantly and take her into his arms? A fairy tale notion even in a world with actual fairies. The question hollowing out the core of her psyche emerged with devastating tenderness. "Why don't you like me?" Noah snorted in reply.
Sam wandered into the living room where she had saved Noah's life. She looked out the window in utter defeat.
A white utility van pulled up in front of her house. Shadows piled out. Ninety seconds and her family was knocked out and heaved over the shoulders of the shadowy characters. The van vanished soundlessly. Sam stood there, too frightened to even yell in protest.
Deanna Hilson's eyes fluttered as they opened on a grotesque sight. A man in a silver tuxedo dining on what could only be the cooked faceless head of a human being. Deanna held back the instant gag reflex that ensued. The man had to be a wendigo and this had to be his meal.
Deanna stared at the elegant surroundings. Wendigo were man-eaters, pure and simple. This one was different. He had elevated cannibalism into fine dining. To him, long pig was caviar. As bad as it sounded, the sight of the meal's white skin gave her peace. This particular meal wasn't family.
"Don't worry," the wendigo opened as if reading her thoughts. "It's no one you know." The tall creature's mouth took up the bottom third of his face. "Just a hobo looking for a warm meal." He flashed his teeth, a fine collection of sharpened needles designed to bite through bone matter.
"What the poor guy didn't know was that I was looking for a warm meal too." He let out a staccato burst of laughter at his own joke.
"Care for a bite?" Deanna fidgeted a bit, unaware of her confinement, arms and legs strapped into a wheelchair. "I mean, you can't move but I could …"
The man speared a bite of his meal. "Here comes the airplane." He weaved the fork around her head like a private jet aiming for the landing stripe of her tongue.
Deanna pursed her lips shut. "Fine." He popped the morsel into his mouth. "More for me." The man took his seat at the table.
Deanna took a moment to digest the facial features of this wendigo. She had the horrible feeling she knew this face from somewhere or another. He had the silver hair of an older gentleman who had nonetheless aged gracefully.
"You look familiar." Deanna paused. "I know you, don't I?"
The man pressed his hands together and bowed slightly. "Here I am thinking kids your age don't keep up on politics. I'm Senator Nathaniel Grimm and your family is being held prisoner in my lovely abode." Nate smiled. This guy liked to talk. Deanna might be able to use that to her advantage.
"I hate that part in stories where the villain says he's not going to reveal his master plan because that would be a Bond villain mistake. I mean, why have a master plan if you're not going to talk about it? Besides, nothing you learn in the next few minutes will help you escape."
Nathan looked at Deanna. "I know you hunters are a keen lot. I bet you have found a few ways to escape your restraints in the time it took me to introduce myself." Deanna indeed had staked out a few options for a hasty retreat from this cannibal's paradise. She just needed an opening first.
Nathan smirked. "Except you don't know where your parents are. Or if they're even in the same building. You don't even know if they are alive or not."
Nathan grinned. His teeth glistened like polished metal in the light of the chandelier. His smile danced around like a worm wriggling around on his face. It wasn't a nervous gesture. It was a cocky gesture like a thug cracking his knuckles before working someone over.
"I know all of that but I'm not telling you." Nathan wagged his finger at Deanna. "That would be a Bond villain mistake." His massive jaw muscles grinded up the crunchy remains of the hobo's left ear. Deanna felt the pre-vomit rising up in her throat. "Instead, I will regale with my own origins."
Like a teacher at the chalkboard, Senator Grimm started his lesson. "Do you even know where the word cannibal comes from?" Deanna rolled her eyes. This was insufferable. "It was a Spanish word for a tribe in the West Indies who ate human flesh. They believed it gave them powers."
Nathan laughed aloud at that last part. "Funny thing is, it would have if they had the right genes."
Nate licked his lips. "Which, incidentally, is what separate a normal human from a full-fledged wendigo." Nathan held up his index finger. "A certain smear of nucleic acids and the tiniest bit of human flesh down one's gullet."
Nathaniel Grimm let out a sigh, not so much out of anguished recollection but as a melodramatic means of emulating anguished recollection. "It was a December morning decades ago. My plane crashed in the Alaskan wilderness. My parents died first. They tried their damnedest to keep me alive. Even warned me what I might have to do. So I had a choice. I could starve to death or I could utilize the only source of protein available. My parents."
An authentic display of salivation came over Nathan. "It was a rush like nothing I had ever experienced before. At that moment, I realized why the ancient Aztecs made human sacrifices to their heathen gods." His snakelike tongue darted between his teeth. "It was a meal fit for a god."
Nathan took a deep breath. "I got back to civilization." Nathan traced a circle with his fingers. "My aunt and uncle buried the whole thing. And now here am I, a cannibal you two-legged Happy Meals elected to the Senate."
Nathan shook his head. "Life's funny that way." Nathan eyeballed Deanna. "Don't you agree?" She wanted to dress down his pretentious wolf-in-sheep's-clothing banter but she resisted the urge. If she dared to open her mouth, God only knew what he might try to force down her throat.
"It's an incendiary grenade." Sammy tossed said explosive at Noah Walker. He nearly dropped it on the floor. She smirked. "Don't worry; it's not armed. I could use it as a hockey puck; it wouldn't go off." Noah nodded in reply.
Making something explode or travel faster than the speed of sound was a little out of his line. Benandanti were hunters of a slightly older tradition. The black powder was noisy and smelly. Weapons unfit for a genuine hunt.
Noah kept that opinion to himself. Sammy had lost her family to unknown malefactors, saved only by a torque of fate beyond rational belief. Noah stared longingly at Sammy. She caught his glance and he redirected it at her toes.
How could he have been so blind? It was there all along, hidden beneath a paper-thin veneer of their mutual insecurity. Noah wanted to hold Sammy in his arms and kissed her softly like the male lead in a trashy romance novel.
He wanted so badly to. He didn't know how. He could channel a wolf spirit into his very muscles. He could turn into a wolf himself. All that and he did have the power to act upon feelings that were clearly shared between them.
Even the wolf spirit inside of him riled against his weakness. With wolves and humans, the same basic rule applied. The male needed to act as the aggressor in a courtship. Noah was an aggressor now in every way except in this.
Noah breathed deeply and began to channel his wolf spirit. At that instant, he could hear her heartbeat accelerate as she gazed upon the light caught in his eyes. Noah leaned in and felt Sammy lean into him. It was unbearable.
In this moment of indecision, Noah realized what bothered him most about this. It wasn't real. Even though he was not asleep now, it still felt unreal to him. He had done nothing to earn this and everything to have it taken away.
If he had the words to woo her the right way, then he might continue. If the words would burn themselves on his eyelids' interior so he might see them, then he might steal this kiss and still feel as though he had paid in full for it.
Sammy's glassy stare hardened as Noah pulled away from her. Sammy snatched the grenade away and retreated to the far end of the living room. Mom, Dad and Alyssa continued their exhaustive research of the evidence.
A congressman was packed in all this subterfuge. Noah didn't get all the details. He was busy staring at Sammy. She was line of sight, a jaunt in one direction yet she might as well have resided on the dark side of the moon.
The ease of forced entry into the Grimm Mansion should have been a warning. According to the Walkers, Senator Nathaniel Grimm had been taken hostage by a mercenary group of letiches. While they resemble seven-foot-tall hairy bipedal alligators, they were actually quite easy to kill.
Enough grievous bodily harm could dispose of an ornery letiche. As far as hunts went, they could have done a lot worse. The Hilson made once hunted a je-rouge in Miami. A Haitian shifter, they had to cut the heart out of its host with blessed silver and burn its earthly remains in a sacred fire.
Samantha Hilson could still feel that almost-kiss burning on her lips. Noah was either the most demented sadist that ever lived or a wolf-boy with some serious self-esteem issues. She had wanted that kiss so badly. Sam almost forced herself upon Noah but held back at the last minute.
Their research did not indicate why the letiches had taken an interest in her family. Letiches were not the brightest crayons in the box. First-call thugs, they worked for the highest bidder, their horrific appearance barring their kind from any other profession besides ones given to violence.
The entrance to the Grimm Mansion was guarded by only two half-asleep letiches. A strange fact concerning they had just kidnapped a senator and held him hostage in his own home. One would think even the dumbest of these monsters would pay due diligence to the possibility of intruders.
Sammy looked over at Noah. She had given trying to understand monsters. Sammy led Noah and his father into the disquietingly empty parlor. Noah's mother and Alyssa had stayed behind as their insurance policy. If they were captured, it would be their turn to be the gallant rescue party.
Noah's father was their spotter, making sure that the letiches hadn't grown brains and set a trap for them. Noah stripped off his shirt and allowed himself to transform. Sammy had never seen him turn before. Watching him grinded and twisted into his new wolf-like body made her wince.
Noah wriggled out of his clothes. The fact that he was naked didn't go unnoticed. The fact that he'd be even more naked when he turned back hadn't gone unnoticed either. Sammy shook her head and trained her shotgun on the shadows. Three letiches collapsed as the scattershot hit their bodies.
Noah's dad came around the corner, his hunting knife caked in blood. "All clear," he said as he gestured Noah and Samantha to follow him. In the kitchen, a bound and hog-tied senator waited on top of the kitchen table. Sam wasted no time and untied and unbound the kidnapped senator.
Usual thanks and promises of restitution spilled out his mouth as he eyed wolf Noah wearily. "It's okay." The senator reacted as if she was talking to him. She wasn't. "He won't bite." Noah eased up and approached the senator. "There were three more. Two women, one man, all black."
As she struggled to jostle Senator Grimm's memories, Noah stepped closer. What happened next happened too fast. The senator had Noah by the throat.
The senator tossed him aside after tearing out a huge chunk of his chest cavity. Senator Grimm smiled as he bite off a piece of what he had taken.
Then, the senator vanished into thin air. "Omigod, Omigod, Omigod," Sammy chanted as she raced over to Noah's side. He was still alive, even though the chunk torn out of him had to be his heart. He struggled to breath for all of ten seconds. His struggle ended and, with it, so did his life.
A haggard breath crept out of Sammy's throat in anguished stops and starts. Noah had been dying. Now, he was dead. She opened her eyes and saw a line of blood. The senator hadn't teleported. He had turned invisible but the blood from Noah's heart had painted a trail for her to follow.
Samantha bolted down the hallway as Noah's father entered the room. She had less than no time to comfort a grieving father. Senator Grimm was getting away. A letiche in a three-piece suit tried to sneak up on her. Scattershot blasted him up. She hurdled over his broken bleeding body.
Samantha saw the bloodied outline of the senator's hand floating in mid-air. Without a moment to spare, she emptied the shotgun, four shots in total. The senator turned visible. If the purple bruises on his upper torso were anything to go off of, the shots had messed him up but hadn't penetrated.
Sam's heart sank as she recognized this creature. Senator Nathaniel Grimm was a wendigo. Samantha could shoot at him all night without putting a decent hole in him. "Impressing." Nathan closed the distance between them in a slow anguished gait. Sammy tried to reload but dropped the extra rounds.
Nathan hoisted Sammy up by one hand. "Any last words?"
Sam smiled as she hung from Nathan's faltering grip. "Just one," she croaked. Samantha Hilson dismantled the content of her left pants pocket and shoved it into his mouth, past his giant teeth and down his throat. The senator gagged as he let Sammy drop onto the marble floor. "Boom."
The hide of the wendigo absorbed brunt of the blast as the incendiary grenade burned his insides into ashes. The senator fell down onto his knees, black smoke jetting out from his mouth, eye sockets and ears. The emptiness of his eyeholes stared up at Samantha as he crumbled away into dust.
Noah's father walked into the hallway, his son's corpse draped in both arms, her family flanking him on both sides. Samantha ran up and hugged Mom, Dad and Deanna all at once. Deanna eyed the bloodied cavern in Noah's chest. Sammy shook her head in reply to Deanna's silent question.
He didn't make it. That thought hadn't crystallized until now. She had defeated a wendigo with nothing but a grenade and a prayer but the one boy she didn't even get to kiss had died in a cowardly sneak attack. A stray tear fell from one eye. Another tear from another eye followed. More came.
Mom and Dad wrapped their arms around, helping her up as her feet gave out from under her. Noah wasn't supposed to die. And, yet, there he was, his corpse hollowed out with bare hands and eaten by a wendigo, his pulse a thing of the past, his corpse forever trapped in the shape of a red wolf.
Samantha Hilson caressed the crimson fur of Noah's wolf body. It finally made sense why Noah wouldn't kiss her. That brown-eyed brown-haired boy was the mask. She was now looking at the true face of Noah Walker. Against all reason, she planted a kiss on his furry forehead. "Sleep tight."