A pact, the pack
Run for all. All for the run
Now cursed to the final son
Thirst for the wild, howl at the moon
Kellerika and Val wound their way among the Moldovan mountains. A row of bulbous trees sailed past her lowered window. The crisp mountain air did a lot to clear her senses from the day before. After the metal fest bloodbath, they had tracked the wolf back into Ukraine for most of the night. Val lost her trail a short distance over the border in Moldova. His best hunch was that the wolf would want to get to high ground for solitude and an easy way to watch for intruders while she licked her wounds.
Kell dozed in and out of sleep. The past three days were a blur. “Any idea where she might’ve gone?”
He steered the car around another bend in the road. “Not sure. We’ll have a better idea tonight once she feeds again.”
She pulled out her phone. “I’ll call Stazia and give her an update.” She had to connect on a roaming net, but it was better than nothing.
The line picked up. “Stazia here.”
“Hi, it’s Kellerika.” She rolled up her window to cut down on the racket. “I’m with Val. We’ve tracked the wolf into Moldova, but lost her trail overnight.”
“Oh,” Stazia said. “Your number didn’t show up.”
Kell leaned her hair out the window. “We’re driving through the mountains, so the connection here’s spotty.” She leaned into another turn through their ascent.
“This sounds like it’s getting dangerous.” Stazia rummaged for something. “I’ve got a friend in Drochia. He knows his way around these things.” Her voice grew hollow. “You’re on speaker while I send him a message.”
“Appreciate it.” Kell winked at Val.
“Just a moment,” her boss said. A cheerful ding from her side. “Ah. Mirkuud says he’d be happy to meet with you two anytime you like.”
Kell flipped to her map app and measured the distance. “Looks like Drochia’s over an hour from here once we get to the other side of the mountains.”
Stazia’s voice got closer again. “I’ll tell him to expect you soon. I know all our cases tend to be dangerous in one way or another, but cases such as yours present extra hazards.”
“I’ll be careful,” Kell said.
Stazia chuckled. “I know. I was concerned for Valentine. He tends to get overzealous once he’s on the trail of something.”
A sidelong glance at Val. “No worries. I can handle that, too.”
“Excellent.” Stazia sounded like a content momma hen. “Be vigilant and on the ready. We already have another case in Japan that I’m sending one of our hunters to investigate.” A sharp inhalation. “I’m beginning to think they’ve found a soft spot between our planes.”
“We’ll find Mirkuud and wrap this up as soon as we can.”
“Okay,” Stazia said. “As always, don’t hesitate to reach out if you need us.”
Kell hung up and pocketed her cell.
Valentine glanced in her direction as they rounded the summit of their mountain. “Any news?”
“Mirkuud.” Kellerika turned onto her side and reclined her seat. “Stazia’s set up a meeting with a guy named Mirkuud in---”
“Drochia.” Val shook his head. “I know him.”
“Then, you know the way?”
“Yes,” he said. “I know it well. He and I were once a team.”
“No kidding?” Kell got comfy and closed her eyes.
A grunt from Val. “I’d track them, and Mirk would take them out.”
She yawned. “What happened?”
Val huffed. “We got close to one of the Nine. He called in one of you guys to take care of business, and after that he went off the grid.” He guided their car down the other side of the massif. “Something rattled his cage on our previous hunt. Mirk hasn’t been himself since.” He glanced over to Kell. Snores from the passenger seat. “I guess he can tell you when we get there.”
Kellerika groaned and peeled her face off the imitation leather bucket seat. “Ow! Bitch.” She rubbed the crud from her eyes and took in her new surroundings.
Val shut off the engine. “We’re here.”
She inched up an returned her seat to its upright position. “We’re where?”
“Mirk’s place.” He popped his door. “Up and at ’em.”
Kell swung her door ajar into the sidewalk. “Fuck me, man.”
Valentine came to her side. “Not sleep well again?”
Her glare could have frozen the devil’s ass in August. “Ten hours over three days?”
He took her hand and tugged her out of the seat. “After this, we’ll grab some dinner and find a place to crash.”
Kell stretched through a yawn next to a young tree of one sort or another. “Promises, promises.”
Val made his way to the gated front door of a three-story building. “Come.” He pressed a button on the bank of doorbells obscured by some English ivy. “The sooner we get this out of the way, the sooner I can eat.”
A weathered man took ginger steps down to the front door. His long black hair obscured most of his features. A brown eye here. Part of a hooked nose there. A braid of salt-and-pepper beard on either side of his mouth. The figure pressed a hand against the glass door. Its index and middle fingers were fused together. He wore tattered brown cargo pants and a dark blue tee-shirt that looked like he’d lived in it for over a week.
Val peeked through the gate’s bars. “Mirk?”
The figure shuffled to the front gate. He raised his heavy head. His lone brown eye held regret, hopelessness. “You.” The eye gave Kell a once-over. “She said you’d come.”
“She told me about your problem.” Mirkuud’s cracked fingers undid the gate’s latch.
Val pulled it open. “You look like shit.”
Mirk’s nose sniffed the air. “You smell like shit. Still bathing in cheap cologne?”
Valentine chuckled as their host led them into his building. “It’s the best fragrance in Italy.”
Mirk grunted. “Probably why I stay the hell away from Italy.”
They followed him up three flights of stairs to his place on the third floor.
Mirkuud turned the knob and went into his penthouse. “Two of us on this floor. I own this half,” he kicked a kitchen chair into place, “a surgeon owns the other side.” He turned a leather eyepatch to Kell. “The doctor’s on holiday in France, hence the unlocked door.”
Kell strode to the heart of the main room. For what he lacked in personal hygiene, Mirk’s home more than compensated. Meticulous was an understatement. Polished parqueted floors. Marble tiling in the kitchen. Towering bookshelves in several rows all stuffed with books, scrolls, and rolled maps.
Mirkuud extended a hand to his kitchen. “Something to drink? Moldovan white from 1987.”
“Sounds great.” Kellerika walked to his window and watched the traffic sputter past.
Mirk ambled to the kitchen and poured three tumblers of his wine stash and returned. “It was a matter of time until this one decided to resurface again.” He passed out the drinks.
Kell took a gulp. “We have a wolf problem. Stazia said you were an expert in such things.”
Mirk downed his wine in one swill. “Expert?” His head shook. “I’ve had some close encounters.” He held up his fingers, then used them to tap his eyepatch. He settled into his leather sofa and motioned to Valentine. “He was there. Surprised he didn’t already tell you.”
She took a seat in a matching chair. “He did, but I fell asleep.”
A rowdy guffaw from Mirkuud. “Never was much of a storyteller!”
Val swished a mouthful of the wine and swallowed.
“A fine vintage,” Mirk said. “No?”
Valentine sat in the other matching chair. “I’ve had better.”
Their host scoffed. “Always the prick.” He turned his eye to Kell. “To answer your question, yes. I can help you with your problem.” He leaned back into the cushions. “It wasn’t so long ago that I hunted such creatures for your Order among other clientele.”
She took another nip from her tumbler. “Val said as much. He also told me you two used to be partners.”
Mirk’s hulking frame slumped.
She spun her glass in her hand. “What happened?”
The two men shared a disquieted glance. Mirk sat one leg atop the other. “We got close to one of the Nine on our last expedition.” His eye quivered. “This is going to require another cup of wine.” He went to the fridge and returned with a half-empty bottle and topped off his glass. “We had a lycanthrope in Romania.” He downed another gulp. “Val had tracked him into the Carpathians to a village.” His eye got lost in the dusty memories. “We readied for a war and went in.” Mirk’s guise hardened. “Men, women, and children. All shape shifters. Had to kill them all.” He guzzled his booze. “Burned some of them alive in their homes.” His eye moistened. “Still hear their screams in my nightmares.” He choked back a sob.
“We chased the possessed one into his shrine to the Nine. A church of sorts,” Val said, taking over. “Whole place reeked of burning fur and flesh. We couldn’t wait for one of your hunters to show up. So, we took matters into our own hands.”
“Big mistake.” Mirkuud took back the baton. “I thought I could banish it back.” He held up his fingers. “During the rite, it burned my hand and ran one of its fingers through my eye socket.” He knocked back the remnants of his wine. “When I returned to my home, I found,” his chest hitched, “found my wife and daughter massacred. Eyes rolled back. Bloody nines carved into them.”
Kell covered her mouth. “I’m so sorry.”
Mirkuud topped off her glass and filled up another for himself. “Not much I have left in this world.” He chugged half of his glass. “Some days, I pray to God and beg Him to take me. Others, I search for my coffin at the bottom of the bottle.”
Kellerika swallowed her consolations.
“Every morning,” Mirk said, “I wake up to face another day.” He moved to the edge of his seat, jaws clenched. “For the longest time, I wandered this city clueless, but now---now I know.” Mirk killed his drink and slammed the tumbler to his coffee table. His narrow eye found Kell’s. “You’ve given me renewed purpose.”
She squirmed in her chair. “I have?”
Mirk nodded. “I am at your disposal.” He crossed and thick arm over his midsection. “I won’t rest until these things pay.”
Val finished his glass. “We could use your assistance with our current problem.”
Mirkuud got up and shuffled among his rows of bookshelves. A distant belch. He came back with a stack of books.
“The werewolf,” Mirk said, “is one of the prominent cryptids. Sure, you have Bigfoot, Loch Ness, vampires, and the like.” He cracked the first book in his stack. “The lycanthrope, though, is one that we have a lot of evidence and understanding about.” He set the book in front of her. “In most cases, the werewolf is carrying a lifelong curse---”
“Passed down from generation to generation,” Val said.
Mirk nodded. “In others, the shapeshifter has made a deal with a demon.” He thumbed through his next book. “These are the ones we’re concerned with the most. The cursed ones tend to live in peace and survive off livestock and game.”
Valentine glanced at his pages. “The creatures like the one we’re hunting,” his eyes moved to Kell, “hunt for more than food.”
Mirkuud gave her the next book opened to a page with a nine-point star depicted. “They slay for their new masters, collecting souls that they may gain enough power to remain on our plane.”
Kellerika put the book on the table. “We need to find her.”
Mirk held up a finger. “First, we need to make you ready.” He walked to a glass showcase on the wall opposite his library room. He took a leather strap from around his neck and inserted the tiny silver key into the case’s door lock. He returned bearing a holster and a sheathed short sword. Mirk placed the holster on the table and unsheathed the sword. “Fine polished silver.” His admiring eye studied the blade as it emerged. “Kept sharp for centuries.” He held it aloft in the sun. Its rays played on the delicate runes engraved in its blade. “Marked and blessed.” Mirk slipped it back into its leather sheath and handed it to Kell. “May it fell as many a beast for you as it has for me.”
He sat back down and pulled an antique six-shooter from the holster. Cold steel with silver inlays. Delicate scrollwork. “This beauty was first used by my mentor’s great-great grandfather.” Mirkuud unlocked the gun’s barrel and spun it.
“Silver bullets?” Kell pulled one from the holster.
“Those and rounds blessed by a priest.” With a snap of his wrist, the barrel swung back into the revolver. “It was originally bought in New Mexico off a gambler. The first owner hunted shifters and the undead.”
Kellerika took the gun and belt. “Thank you for your kindness.”
Mirkuud sat rubbing his hands. “I knew him, you know.”
Her confused gaze searched her host.
“Roger,” he clarified. “Your mentor. He and I worked on a handful of cases in France and the States back in the day.” Mirk eased into his seat. “He often mentioned his promising young apprentice on our journeys.”
Kell lowered her pain to her lap. “Then, you’ve heard, I assume.”
Mirk’s eye blinked. “What?”
“He died on his last assignment.” She fidgeted with a loop on the gun belt. “One of the Nine.” She peered into his eye. “The most powerful of them, he thought.”
Val crossed a leg. “It’s still there.”
Mirk slumped forward. “I was there when he lost his wife. What they did to her.” His head shook. “I knew his loss that day.”
Kell patted her weapons. “I took up his mantle.”
“He looked on you like the daughter he and Olivia never had.” Mirk dripped his wine into their tumblers. “To Roger.” He pushed his glass to the center of the table.
“To Roger.” Kell and Val did likewise.
Their host downed his wine and sat his glass down. “Now, there are some things that you both must know before you go.”
Mirkuud jabbed a finger at Kell’s haul. “Silver is one way to take them down. Fire is another.”
“Yup,” Val said. “We’ve had great success with those as well as beheadings and stopping their beating hearts.”
Mirkuud glanced out his window at the falling sun. “They always end up traveling in packs. Even the lone wolves won’t stay alone.”
“They can get singled out and killed easier alone,” Val said.
Mirk eyed them both. “If you can’t find your girl, find a pack. They’ll eventually slip up.”
Val got up and stretched. “We should get back on the road.” He tilted his head toward the window. “It’ll be dark soon.”
Mirk guided them to his door. “Safe travels, my friends.”
An hour and a half after departing Mirk’s, Kell and Val wove among the Moldovan mountains once again. Sundown had passed, and a pale gibbous moon crept over the peaks.
Kell sat in the passenger seat, clutching her gifts. “I don’t feel right.”
Valentine kept a careful watch on the winding road in the narrow cone of the car’s high beams. “Why?”
She looked out her window into the fleeting darkness. “I don’t know how to describe it, but something---”
A large mass put a dent in the roof of the car.
“Shit!” Val swerved the vehicle toward the ditch.
Kellerika fumbled for her weapons on the floorboard. “She found us.”
A massive fist hammered into the windshield, shattering the passenger’s side.
“Put some holes in the bitch!” Val wove back and forth, trying to shake the creature free.
Her fingers found the hilt of her sword. “Got it.” She pulled it free of the scabbard and jammed it into the car’s roof.
Valentine sped up down a straightaway. “Where’s the fucking gun?”
“It slid under the seat when you ran us off the road.”
The monster’s fist smashed against the windshield again. This time, it left a crater in the fractured glass. An enraged growl from right over her head. Kell stabbed the roof again. A whimper. Its fist smashed through the glass, grabbed hold, and tore the windshield out. The sheet of glass exploded in hundreds of pieces in the road behind them.
“Jesus!” Val hunched over the wheel.
A monstrous claw swept the cabin for his head. Kellerika swung her blade down on the thing’s wrist. A glancing blow to its forearm instead. The werewolf screamed as the flesh around the laceration sizzled and boiled. Val stomped on the gas, pushing the wagon to its limits.
“What are you doing?” Kell readied for another attack. A fist thumped against her window.
The next turn in the mountain road sped toward them.
He squinted against the whipping winds. “Grab hold of something!”
She gripped the hilt in her left hand and the car door’s handle in the other. The yellow line on the road ran out. A guardrail curved around the hill out of sight.
He cut the wheel hard, rocking the vehicle up on Kell’s two tires.
“Damn!” Val spun the wheel back the other direction, righting the car’s balance.
A roar from their roof as a huge gray mass flew out over Kell’s head and rolled down the ravine on her side of the road. Val hit the brakes and shifted into park.
She ran to the guardrail. Tree limbs snapped and the monster howled far below. Kellerika searched the moonlit shadows for any movement, but none came.