To Whom I Kneel: Nine Kings Episode 2

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Verse 3

Hungry, gnawing hunger

Like a mist borne across the land

Your scent, dissident

Blame shed, a slaughtered lamb



1.

Kellerika paced around the remnants of Fyodor’s bonfire. Olya had called the police twenty minutes ago, but said it would take them an hour to get out here. One of the villagers had been decapitated. Another had his throat gorged and was burned alive on the fire. Fyodor hobbled to an imprint on the ground. He jabbed his finger at it over and over as his emphatic voice repeated something she couldn’t comprehend.

“I---I can’t.”

Fyodor was frantic. The creature had done something terrible to the man that ripped his shirt and shook him to within an inch of his life from the farmer’s reenactment. Family members of the deceased were kept at the front of the cottage in the comfort of their neighbors.

Kell waited for Fyodor to finish, then she pulled out her cell. “Call, boss.”

Calling, Stazia.

The line connected. “Kellerika? You have news, I take it?”

Kell groaned. “That’s an understatement.”

“Go ahead.”

Kellerika moved away from the murder scene for some fresh air. “Our creature struck again last night.”

Stazia hummed. “I supposed so.”

“Yeah,” Kell said. “One had his head torn off. Another was mauled and then burned alive on their bonfire. My host? He survived, but not before being scared half to death.”

“Any witnesses?” Stazia’s tone remained level.

“One of the other villagers said he shot at it.” Kellerika turned to make sure no one followed. “I can’t understand what they’re telling me, but it sounds like if this guy hadn’t fired, Fyodor would still be in pieces.”

“That should put the final nail in the coffin on this thing being a timber wolf or a bear.”

“No challenges from me,” Kell said.

“Any clue where it went or who our wolf might be in the daylight?”

Kellerika leaned against a split-rail fence post. “I’ve got nothing. That’s the other reason I wanted to call you.”

“Understood,” Stazia said. “I know someone in that area that I can send your way. An expert tracker. Valentine.”

Kell’s brow wrinkled. “Valentine?”

“From Rome, Italy,” her boss said. “A bit on the macho side, but fantastic at what he does.”

Kell swatted a fly from her hair. “Sure. Sounds great. When can he be here?”

A keyboard clacked on Stazia’s end. “I sent him a text. He’s in Romania right now. I can book him on a flight to Kharkiv today.”

“All right,” Kell said.

Stazia continued. “That should put him on the ground with you this afternoon.”

Kell shooed another bug. “I’m not going anywhere soon.”

Stazia chuckled. “I’ll get him there as soon as possible. Anything else we can do for you for now?”

“I’m all right,” Kell said. “The cops should be here in a bit. They’ll have questions.” After Stazia cleared the line, she attempted an email to Evan. Three attempts and three failures. She stuffed her cell back in her hip pocket.

2.

The authorities pulled in about thirty minutes after Kell hung up with Stazia. Once the officers finished questioning Fyodor and the others, they came over to Kellerika. The doughy one attempted to get her rendition with his best English.

“Good morning, miss,” Doughboy said. “We want to, uh,” he rolled a hand in front of his face, “conduct a---”

Kell spotted him. “Interview?”

“Da!” His pudgy eyes smiled. “Interview. Sorry. I studied English in secondary school many years ago.”

She shook it off. “No problem. What do you want to know from me?”

He pointed to the crime scene. “Did you see anything?”

“I was asleep in the bed,” she directed the confused man’s attention to the cottage, “inside when it happened.”

He wrote down some notes in his pad. “Others. They talked of,” he rummaged around in his mind for the word, but failed, “um… volk. Like, big dog.”

“Wolf?” She followed despite the language barrier.

He snapped his fingers. “Yes! Wolf. Thank you.”

Kellerika nodded. “The other villagers told me about their accounts of this wolf. I didn’t see it myself, but something large ripped those poor people apart.”

Doughboy didn’t catch all of it. He shook his head in defeat.

“Ah!” Kell caught a glimpse of black fabric swaying in the wind. “Father Andrei. Thank goodness.”

“Ms. Virtanen.” Andrei greeted the officers. “How are you holding up, dear?”

“Trying to explain my account of what happened.” A dejected gaze. “Could you help us?”

He chuckled. “Of course.”

Kell tried again. “I was explaining to the nice officer that I was in the cottage at the time of the attack. So, I can’t corroborate any of the villager’s stories.”

Father Andrei translated while she continued.

“I don’t know what else could have done the damage left behind, though.”

Andrei completed her statement and waited for the cop’s next question. Doughboy muttered something to Andrei. “He wants to know what brings you all the way from America to Ukraine.”

She warped the truth. “The church sent me here to investigate these occurrences from a secular point of view.” She poked a thumb toward Father Andrei. “The Father here is my friend and liaison while I’m in your country.”

Once Andrei conveyed her message, both officers eased their stances. Father Andrei fielded a couple of questions from them before the tandem departed for their cruiser. Andrei filled her in on the sidebar conversation. “They asked me if I believed that these atrocities could have been committed by the creature of legend. I told them I couldn’t rule it out.”

A slender, sleek man meandered up to them. He kept his black hair slicked back and plastered to his scalp. He had an olive complexion and hazel eyes. “This,” Andrei said, “is what brought me out later than I had anticipated.”

“Valentine?” She offered a hand.

He took off his designer shades and gave her a light bow. “Val, per favore. I am at your service, Ms. Virtanen.” He walked around the murder scene, studying the area on the whole.

Kellerika followed him. “Think you can---?”

Val held up a hand. The tracker knelt by the fire’s ashes.

His fingers drifted over a patch of crushed grass. “One of its prints.” He stood and moved to the opposite side. “It leaped over the flames.” Val pointed to two additional prints in the grass and continued. “Came to this poor fellow,” he pointed to the headless corpse, “and ripped his head off.”

Father Andrei performed a prayer and blessing over the body. Valentine stopped at the next chair.

“Our monster,” the tracker said, “then got hungry and attacked this one.” Val turned and moved to the charred body on the ashes. “Flung his remains here,” he took quick steps to an area of crushed grass, “and attacked the owner here.”

Kellerika crossed her arms. “I’m impressed.” Her keen eyes surveyed the hills. “Question is, where did it go from here?”

Valentine pointed to different spots in the pasture as he strode away from the cottage. Kell trailed him up a shallow embankment past the pond and stopped with him next to a cluster of birches.

“Its trail goes farther into the hills,” he aimed his designer shades at the nearby hummock, “there.”

Kell smiled. “Up for a bit of hiking?”

He lifted a designer Italian leather shoe from the weeds.

She slapped him on the back. “Lead the way.”

Val grumbled something harsh in his native tongue and loped up the trail into the hills. They stopped at the top of the ridgeline. Kellerika’s gaze wandered over the fields below. A soft breeze tickled her neck. “Beautiful view of everything from up here.”

“Right.” Val studied some scratches on the trunk of a tree. “Perfect place to scope out your next meal, next victims.”

She got a closer look at them. “Our wolf?”

“No question.” He followed a line of broken branches and toppled saplings. “Come. This way.”

They ventured down the other side of the hill and came to a dead end of sorts at a wide stream. Val circled the lone tree in the area, his gaze never leaving the ground.

Kell joined him. “Anything?”

An affirmative grunt. “Human footprints.” Val knelt and measured one with his hands. “Little ones at that. Possibly female.” The tracker sniffed the air and followed his nose toward the cavern. “Smell that?”

Kellerika nodded. “Smoke.”

He marched to the cave’s entrance and stopped. “Our person was here.” He pointed out his evidence around the cavern. “Prints. The fire. Stores of fruit.”

Kell looked around the clearing. “She’s not here.”

Val joined her by the tree. “No.” He slid on his shades and looked around. “I bet she ran north or west.”

“South’s out.” Kellerika looked over the hill. “How about east?”

Val shook his head. “Our creature fled from there to Ukraine.” He strode to the stream. “No. Our wolf is on the move to the north.”

She walked down to the stream. “Instead of traveling west?”

Val nodded. “Less ground to cover to get into another country.” He headed back up the hillside. “Come. We’ll go get my car and travel to the next town. I’ll bet we’ll find out more there.”

3.

After a quick search for travel options, Kell and Val wound up at the next town’s lone bus station. Val’s choppy Russian skills were able ascertain that nothing out of the ordinary happened. The clerk didn’t recall anyone acting strange or looking like they’d lived out of a cave for a while.

Valentine cursed in Italian, and then asked the young guy behind the counter another question. The clerk pointed out some towns on a map.

Val turned to her. “He says that this line goes to northern towns and terminates in Gomel, Belarus.”

They stepped out of the queue away from prying minds. Kell rubbed her forehead. “Think our gal would’ve run all the way to Gomel?”

Valentine bobbed his head once. “New country. New start.”

Kell’s pocket vibrated. “New message.”

Val leaned against the wall.

“From the boss.” Kell’s finger swiped the message away. “She forwarded reports from Belarus authorities.”

“Okay.” Valentine wasn’t impressed.

She pocketed her phone. “A guy was found murdered in his apartment in Gomel. Throat ripped. Chest pulled apart. Green car was stolen.”

Valentine trotted to his rental, curling a finger. “That’s our girl. Let’s get on the road.”

On the way there, Kell had gotten further details and directions to the latest murder. The victim was Alexei Ganin, seventeen. Worked at an auto repair shop in town. No history past a one-year stint in the regional jail for theft.

Val pulled their car into a metered spot in Gomel. “This next part might require some finesse.”

Kell walked with him into the high rise and hit a button for the elevator. “By finesse, do you mean questionable activity?”

He got in the elevator and popped his brows twice.

Kellerika double checked her message. “Stazia said it was on the eighth.”

He hit their number and watched the digits turn on the overhead display. Kell got out on the eighth floor and checked both halls. Down the right-hand side, the sun caught something flapping on the door farthest down.

She took off after it. “This way.”

Kell came to a door barred by what she suspected was police tape.

Valentine took a slender file from his pocket. “Keep an eye out.” He bent in close to the deadbolt lock. “Let me know if anyone’s coming.”

“Holy crap.” Kell turned the other way. “One day, I’m sipping coffee in Maryland. The next, I’m on the other side of the world helping a dude break into a crime scene.”

Val wiggled his instrument in the mechanism. “A smidge louder. I don’t think the people downstairs heard you.” A click from the deadbolt. “Got it.” He turned the doorknob and ducked under the tape. “Quick.”

“We’re gonna get arrested.” Kellerika dipped under the tape.

The whole flat reeked. A similar rotting stench that she had smelled at Fyodor’s farm permeated everything here.

She buried her nose in the crook of an arm. “This is horrible.”

Valentine studied the gory stains on the futon. His nimble fingers plucked a thin hair from its cushions. He took it to the window and held it in the daylight.

“What did you find?”

He turned in back and forth. “Hair. Not human.” He took a clear bag from the inside pocket of his jacket and zipped his treasure. “Our labs will love that one.”

Kell hacked into her elbow. “Anything else, or can we leave already?”

The tracker went back to the front door. Something on the round kitchen table made him do a double take. “Bingo.” He held up a crumpled flyer for a rock concert or something. Kell couldn’t tell.

She stopped beside him. “What does it say?”

Val’s head shook. “Can’t understand all of it, but it’s a metal concert of some kind going on in Minsk.”

Kell ducked under the tape and out into some fresh air. “When?”

Val folded it and stuffed it into a pocket. “Tomorrow.”

She jogged to the elevator and jabbed the button. “That’s our next stop, then.”

“Agreed.” He held the door for her. “A large crowd. Loud music and fields. Prime hunting grounds.”

Kellerika’s jaws clenched. “Damn right, it is.”

4.

They rented a room in Minsk overlooking Gorky Park. Val took the sleeper sofa, leaving Kell the twin bed. His infernal snoring ensured she got little rest. Through some light sleuthing over the afternoon, Val found out that this concert was one of the most famous heavy metal festivals in Eastern Europe. Big ticket acts. Local media had been reporting for weeks that it would bring hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the region. It was in a sprawling field that bordered the Svislach River and a forest north of the city. By the time Kell and Valentine arrived, they had to park a mile away and walk to the entrance gates. Throngs of metalheads made their way into the venue, donning the tees of their favorite groups.

“My kind of people.” Kell waved at another girl sporting a Maiden tee.

Val stopped near the main entrance.

“What’s the trouble?” Kellerika’s excitement bubbled over.

His hand pointed to the gates. “We don’t have tickets.”

“Psssh.” Kell tapped his chest and held out a hand. “You supply the cash, and I’ll score us some tickets.”

Val forked over fifty U.S. and waited by the line forming at the ticket table. Kell jogged around, looking for the telltale scalpers. She found a guy waving stubs and shouting.

She held up her fingers. “Two tickets?”

The scalper nodded, but rubbed his finger and thumb together. Cash. Show me the cabbage, hot stuff.

Kellerika flashed a twenty. The gent shook his head, wearing a look of disgust.

“How about this?” She added a ten to it. She crossed her hands in the air. “No more. Take it or leave it.”

The scalper buckled and exchanged two passes for her thirty bucks. She galloped back to Valentine wearing an ear-to-ear grin.

Kell handed him a pass and his change. “There you are.”

“That was it?”

She wove into the ticket line. “Metal fans are pretty much alike worldwide. You have to know how to speak our language. That’s all.”

Inside the gates, the festival was electric. Some local opening acts thrashed around onstage, working the masses into a frenzy for the main course that was to come.

Kellerika halted Val inside the ticket tables. “We should split up and search the crowd.”

“Agreed,” Val said. “Give me your cell number so we can communicate should one of us find our target.”

She whipped hers out. “Good idea.” She let him copy down her number. “I don’t know where to start looking.”

Val thumbed something on his phone. “I sent you a text.” He pushed his shades up the bridge of his narrow nose. “We know the target is old enough to know how to drive. She has small feet.” He scanned the crowd. “I’d start with the teenage women first.”

“Okay.” She wasn’t sure if he was serious or being a dick.

“If she’s at this type of concert,” he said, “she’ll be on the younger side.”

All right. He’s not being a dick. She pointed to her left. “I’ll go this way. You take the other side.”

Valentine pocketed his cell and headed out on his rounds.

Kell scanned passing groups of people drinking and burning through cigs faster than Phillip Morris could crank them out. “There’s a thousand young girls in here. Any of them could be the one.”

She made her way to a corner near the front of the crowd and waited. She saw Val weave in and out of the other side on several occasions. Each time, he shook his head in disappointment. “Damn.” Her eyes caught those of a some people in the crowd, but nothing unusual stuck out.

The afternoon burned down into late evening. The final remnants of the sun fought against the celestial forces pulling it under. One of the main bands took the stage to the riotous pleasure of the inebriated fans. She thought about making another circuit of her side of the concert, but Kell’s conscience got the better of her. It would be pointless. There were way too many possible suspects in this mess to attempt to single out one crumb in a cake.

“Nothing to do at the present but enjoy the show.” Kell relaxed her guard and settled in for some European metal.

Twilight fell across the festival. Lights spun and flashed as the band belted out a favorite. A bright gibbous moon lay nestled among the distant trees near the horizon. Her pocket vibrated.

A text from Val: ‘Anything?’

Her thumbs flew. ‘Nope. Nothing here. You?’

‘A couple that keep eyeballing me, but no solid leads.’

Kell turned from a nosey fan and leaned over the top rail in the fence. ‘If our target’s here, they’ll show.’

The guitar player dropped to his knees, offering up a solo at the altar of the metal gods. A forest of fists pumped in time to the groove. A blonde girl off to the side of the stage double over in visible pain. She staggered toward the trees and hunched over again.

Kellerika shot off a message. ‘Get over here. Stage right. NOW!’ She stuffed her phone in its pocket and jogged closer to the girl in question.

The young lady swept her shoulder-length blonde hair over her shoulders and made sure she wasn’t being followed. Another fit of agony as she disappeared into the trees. Kell ran to catch up, but the bulky security staff blocker her path.

“C’mon, fellas.”

The buzz-cut brute on her left shook his head.

Val skidded to a stop next to her. “Where?” He took labored breaths.

Kell dragged him to one side for a better look. “There in the trees.”

Valentine squinted. “I see two girls back in there.”

She singled one out. “Blonde. Young. Jeans and a tee.”

“Got her.” He leaned closer. “Fuck. We’re in trouble.”

Kell found her behind a trunk. The girl had taken off her shirt and bra. A tall mohawk of gray fur adorned her hunched spine. “Shit.”

Their target hustled out of her jeans and underwear. She got down on all fours as fur poked out all over. Kell ran to Val who was in the midst of pleading with security to let them pass.

She got in the face of Buzz-cut. “If you don’t let us over there,” she jabbed a finger backstage, “right now, you’re gonna be in a world of shit!”

A growl from the backstage area. Men and women screamed and tumbled over chairs and tables. The guards spun and ran to investigate. The wolf picked up a brunette and threw her into the lighting rig on the stage. Sparks rained down on the drummer and bass player as the can lights blew apart.

Kell charged into the fray. “Let’s go.”

Val grabbed a sleeve. “And do what? We don’t have anything that could stop her.”

The wolf pulled heads from bodies and left them where they fell. Buzz-cut unholstered his sidearm and pinched off a couple of rounds. One of them hit home in the werewolf’s shoulder. The monster barked outraged by his audacity. The she-wolf stormed over on her hind legs. Buzz-cut backpedaled and took aim. The wolf swatted the pistol away, breaking his wrist in the process. A huge claw hovered over his face and then plunged into the flesh. Buzz-cut hung there off the ground in the creature’s vice, wailing as its claw raked the skin from his face. His partner plugged the wolf in her shoulder. She dropped Buzz-cut’s face to the grass and leaped onto his partner. The wolf wound up and landed a punch so powerful that it crushed the poor bastard’s face.

Kell was ready to burst. “We’ve gotta do something!”

Valentine pulled her back into the crowd. “You saw what their bullets did. Nothing.” He tracked the monster as it pounced on the stage and wreaked havoc. “The best we can do is track her until she changes back. Then, we take the bitch out.”

Amplifiers toppled. Sparks snapped and electricity arched across severed cables. The odor of burned wiring and fresh gore. The band’s front lady wanted to run, but the beast had other plans. It grabbed her by the ponytail and punched a claw through the singer’s chest. The claw popped out the other side, wielding a pumping heart and chunks of lung tissue. Three squad cars skidded to a halt outside the main gates. Six officers pulled steel and rushed the main stage. Their pistols went off like a line of firecrackers. The werewolf flung the body at them. It howled at the moon and bounded into the woods. Splashes in the nearby river, and then nothing.

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