Lou’s world under the black hood was darkness. Every breath he took tasted like cloth and sweat. He wondered if that was what fear smelled like. His belt and shoes were gone, the concrete of the floor cold under his feet as he marched blindly ahead – until the rough hand of his captor, a butch, unsmiling Ulfhednar Elder with a hideous scar on her face, shoved him hard to the left. He tripped, stumbled, flailing as if his arms could break free of the handcuffs and stop his fall, but the Elder grabbed his shirt collar, roughly hauling him back into balance.
There was a hard yank from the hand on his shirt. He stopped trudging. The hand left his shirt collar. Something new was coming. He panted for breath, shaking his shoulders in the desperate hope that more fresh air would enter the hood. He longed for his bear, for his power of shapeshifting. The bear wouldn’t have stood for any of this, least of all from some wolf. If Odin, their target from the hunt, hadn’t injected him with the Blood of Saint Christopher, he would’ve changed, torn off his cuffs and ripped out the Elder’s throat.
…or maybe he would’ve changed, had both of his hands cut off by the steel handcuffs latched to his wrists, and died of blood loss while the Elder laughed at him. But at least that way, he would’ve died fighting.
“Died fighting,” the noble end of a hunter, Father had said. He’d seen his friends die fighting and it didn’t look particularly heroic. They were dead, Odin was still alive, and he was a captive of the worst kinds of werewolves on the planet. The fact was that in five minutes, he’d seen death. He thought of Heath, torn in half. Nat, Vic, and Jackie… all gone. Shredded, mangled, mutilated, eyes glossy and staring into space. They were men and women. They told jokes, traded stories about how they’d gotten bitten and where they’d learned to shoot. And now they were just… things. Piles of meat and flesh. Trash to be thrown away by “Cleanup” as Odin had called them.
Father Angelo had told them about martyrdom. How saints had been flayed, burned, and boiled alive to fight for God. Of course, they weren’t afraid. No more so than the war heroes in movies or the superheroes in comics. But as he stood there, in the dark, waiting for whatever the Elder planned to do with him, Lou had the sudden realization that people who were tortured to death weren’t the ones writing about how noble it was.
He felt like he had to say something. Maybe some words that would convince the Elder to change her ways. Maybe something that would distract her from whatever torture she was preparing. But all that came out was a whimper. Lou coughed and gagged, forcing his throat to form words.
“Don’t… I… I didn’t hurt anybody.”
A sharp pain hammered through in his knee. The ground was gone. He screamed. How far would he fall? What if they’d gone up-
His shoulder slammed against concrete. The hood pulled away from his head. Cold air filled his lungs. Agonizing bright white light filled his eyes. He was in a small room with cinderblock walls that reeked of mildew and reminded him of a storage facility. Or at least it did until he saw the tiny cage with welded steel bars. It looked to be about four feet long, four feet wide, and four feet tall; not tall enough for a man to stand and too short for him to lie down. Lou knew that if he was being put in a cage, they weren’t killing him yet. It was a cold comfort as the Elder bent down, grabbing him with easy strength and roughly shoving him inside.
The steel door slammed shut, sealed with a heavy padlock, and the Elder turned, walking slowly away. Lou didn’t dare move; didn’t dare make a sound. Whatever was going to happen, it wasn’t going to happen without the Elder in the room and he didn’t dare bring her back. He watched her steps, one by one, watched as she opened the plywood door, and finally… finally closed it behind her with the casual care of a mother leaving her child’s bedroom.
He exhaled, rolling onto his back – or at least as far as he could until his head and knees were stopped by the bars of the cage. For the first time in hours, he felt safe. It was a flimsy sort of safety, he supposed, and subject to the whims of the worst monsters of the werewolf world, but it was safety nonetheless. He breathed slowly, looking up at harsh white fluorescent lights. His stomach grumbled. His shoulders and wrists ached. That, Lou knew, was only going to get worse, but it was a bearable pain compared to whatever nightmare the Ulfhednar had planned.
“No,” he whispered. Thinking about what could happen wouldn’t help. He needed to think about something else. Anything else.
He heard a cough and a rattle of chains on metal. Lou turned himself over, struggling with his bound hands amid the cramped confines of his prison and saw that there were three other cages in the room. Only one was occupied.
“A kid…” he muttered.
Lou had been called “kid” by everyone he’d met among the Cinocephali. Even Odin called him that. But the boy he saw the cage was even younger than him. He was dressed in a bloodstained polo shirt and ragged khaki dress pants, both of which Lou thought had been designer clothes at some point. The boy himself looked little better for wear, his black hair dirty and bedraggled and his face showing cuts and bruises almost as bad as the ones Lou had gotten from the fight against Odin.
They stared at one another, though Lou wondered if it was only because there was nothing else in the room worth gazing upon. The boy had wide eyes that were too bright and too blue to be anything other than those of a shapeshifter. Lou’s bear had been silenced, but he suspected that the boy was a wolf. In all probability, he supposed that it was just because wolves were the most common, but there was… something about the boy, from the lean muscle on his body and the blue-black shade of his hair that made him think of a wolf.
“Not again…” the boy whimpered. “Oh God, not again… not again…”
“What are you talking about?”
But Lou knew the answer. In the center of the room, between the four cages, the gray concrete floor was a large brown-red stain. He expected to see gouges in the concrete, the damage of bullets fired by the executioner, but there were none. He knew now beyond question: when his time came, it wouldn’t be quick and easy. His breath caught in his lungs and his guts felt like lead, but he forced himself to breathe slowly, not to let the boy see. He didn’t want to die, but he was a soldier in the war against evil. The boy didn’t deserve any of this. It disgusted him – and gave him enough strength to sit up as far as he could in the cage.
“Hey, what’s your name?” he said. “I’m Lou.”
The boy remained silent for a moment, swallowed noticeably and croaked: “Jonas.”
“Jonas, I want you to listen to me, alright? I know you’re scared – and that’s okay. I’m scared too.” He forced himself to smile. “But there are hunters out there looking for me. They’ll find us. All we have to do is wait. That’s the easy part, right? Not like we’re going anywhere.”
Jonas shook his head, looking down at his bare feet. “You’re not the first hunter who’s ended up in here. They all die the same. If anyone finds us, they’re dead. Dead or in here.”
“Oh come on,” Lou insisted. “Trust me. Do you know of Father Angelo? Of the Cinocephali?”
Jonas looked up. “I… I don’t think so.”
“Father Angelo is one of the best hunters in the world. He taught me everything I know about werewolves. And not just him. We have trackers. The best trackers. And real fighters, not just wannabe gangsters like the Ulfhednar have. They can find anyone. And every hunter is worth ten Ulfhednar.” Lou kept smiling, hoping that the boy wouldn’t notice that he felt like throwing up. “I’m promising you: they’ll find us.”
But the boy didn’t seem to agree and despite his smiles, Lou agreed with him. His squad had trained for their battle with Odin. Trained on weapons, trained on infiltration and tactical movement, trained to fight in fur, trained until they lived and breathed as a team, but… He remembered Heath, a true soldier and veteran of hard fighting in Iraq, torn in half by the demon bear, his guts spilled out like roadkill. He shook his head, as if the memories could be shaken off like water. Father Angelo had warned him that his faith would waver in hard times – and he knew that there would be harder trials ahead.
“Jonas,” he said. “I’m promising you that it’s different. Father Angelo has more hunters – the best hunters – and they’re going to come here and rescue us. We’re going to free Chambury from these god-forsaken clans. And we’re going to free you – free every good werewolf, really - from the curse. We have the Blood.”
Finally, he had the boy’s attention, though Lou wasn’t sure if it was because of hope, disbelief, or plain confusion.
“The Blood of Saint Christopher. It’s a cure. You can save yourself from your demons – or make a monster like that… that… Odin harmless. We have enough for everyone. Maybe one day, we’ll have enough for the whole world. Can you imagine that? A whole world, safe and free”
Blue eyes met Lou’s. The boy’s mouth fell open to reveal teeth that were among the straightest Lou had ever seen. Lou wasn’t sure if he was some upper class WASP from the Versi or a more liberal branch of the Cinocephali captured for his connections or maybe one of the heathens who hadn’t been nearly heathen enough for the Ulfhednar, but he was most definitely rich
“That… that’s why you smell human?” asked the boy.
“Jesus!” The boy stared at him as if he was the only surviving lab rat after a test of cancer cures. “Are you, you know, cured? Forever?”
“No… not quite. It tastes a while though. Days. Sometimes a week.”
“Then why don’t you guys put it in the water or something? Or from a crop duster? Or… or… what about get into a food processing plant or grocery store or something? I mean, sure, there are darts and needles, but what about some kind of spy stuff like a poisoned elevator button?”
Lou groaned at the sudden barrage of questions. He’d been hoping to distract the boy, not to be interrogated by his fellow prisoner.
“Well, I guess…” he said. “I don’t think there’s enough for a crop duster or putting it in the water. Putting it in somebody’s food though, well…”
He smirked. The raid on Elder Hayden’s bar had been an enormous mess that had cost the lives of their hunters, but the boy was right and the plan of putting Blood in their food and drink had worked perfectly.
“That’s great,” said Jonas, leaning back as far as his cage would allow. “I’d have loved to be there, just to see the looks on their psycho fucking faces.” Jonas scoffed in disgust. “How does that stuff work anyway?”
Lou opened his mouth to explain that it was injected like a serum, but realized that he didn’t have the answers. How did it work? Where did it come from? What was it made of? He knew only what Father Angelo had told him.
“There’s a lab. A place where faith and science come together to give us miracles like the Blood of Saint Christopher. The Cinocephali are more than just a collection of nuns and priests. More than hunters even. We have scientists and healers with thousands of years’ experience with our kind.”
They were Father Angelo’s words, not his; a pitch that the good Father might’ve given to a high profile moneyman like Townsend.
Jonas stared at him in silence for a moment and then barked out a laugh. “You could just say ‘I don’t know.’”
Lou scowled at him, but chuckled. “Yeah. You’re right.”
Jonas sighed. “I’m guess… you’re new, aren’t you? I mean, like a new werebear, right? And new to the Cinos?”
Lou’s life had been a whirlwind since he’d been bitten and rescued by Father Angelo. There had barely been any time to think too hard about the idea of being “new.” It was like joining the Army, he supposed. In only a couple weeks, he’d changed completely, turning from a civilian to a trained hunter.
“Yeah, I guess.” He sighed. “Taking out Odin was my first mission. Now it’s my last.”
“Mine too,” said Jonas.
“What?” He scrutinized Jonas again, wondering if the clothes were part of a disguise. Young wolves were useful, Father Angelo had explained. Lower profile on the hunt and easier to train. Even if the boy wasn’t familiar, maybe he was one of the out-of-town help the Cinocephali had brought in. “Are you a hunter?”
“No. I’m… I used to be a recruiter for the Versi. But not a hippie. I’d find Ulfs who were being abused. Being made to eat people. Good wolves who wanted out of that… that...”
He looked at the door, as if the Elder would come storming in at any moment. Lou smiled at him, nodding.
“You know…” said Jonas. “I… I’ve been here for two full moons. In this… this fucking cage. I’ve watched them… kill and flay and torture… and fuck it. They’re going to do it to me no matter what I do. I just wanted to help them and they’re going to…”
Lou’s smile faded. He couldn’t imagine what condition he would be in if he had to spend two months in a tiny cage, let alone transform in one, but it seemed so spectacularly pointless for the boy to survive so much only to die.
“Hey. Calm down.”
Jonas snarled. “‘Calm down?’ Do you have any idea what I’ve been through? These people… these fucking people! I hope the hunters kill them all – every one of them.” He kicked his cage. “Do you hear me, assholes? YOU SICK PSYCHO FUCK-”
The plywood door smashed open with such fury that Lou jumped backwards and slammed his head against the bars of the cage. The scarred Elder, her face twisted into a snarl, marched through the doorway – straight for his cage.
Lou couldn’t breathe. He didn’t know this woman, this Elder, but the scars on her face and her hard amber eyes told him enough. And he knew that women didn’t rise to power in the Ulfhednar through kindness. They were a backwards, sadistic clan that lived on cruelty alone. She knelt down by his cage, unlocking the padlock.
Lou thought of the bloodstain on the floor. He wanted to yell that he hadn’t done anything – Jonas had shouted, not him! Father Angelo would approve – he was a Versi after all, little better than the Ulfhednar. Why not allow one villain to kill a lesser one? But then he looked at Jonas, still so young. Jonas who stared at him with innocent blue eyes. Maybe the Ulfhednar would cut a Versi loose, but never a hunter. The boy clearly was rich and had survived two months. Even if the hunters didn’t find them, the boy had a chance to survive. Lou didn’t. In that moment, he knew what he had to do.
The padlock clanked open. Lou looked at Jonas, narrowing his eyes, trying his best to silently communicate what he had to do, urging the boy not to argue.
But then Jonas spoke, his voice barely louder than a whisper.
“Wait… I… I yelled,” said Jonas. “I did it.”
The padlock clanked shut and the Elder turned, slowly approaching the other occupied cage.
Lou froze. He wanted to insult the Elder. To shout and try to draw her away, but… he was relieved. He’d been granted a stay of execution. Maybe it was fate. This “boy” was a monster inside, hardly an innocent victim. And yet… yet his stomach twisted, as if infested with gnawing, venomous insects.
The boy didn’t fight as the Elder unlocked his cage, dragging him to the center of the room and forcing him to kneel in the center of the bloodstain, facing Lou.
“I’m sorry…” Jonas muttered, though wasn’t sure if he was apologizing to him or the Elder. “I’m sorry.”
The Elder didn’t take notice as she drew a long Bowie knife from the scabbard on her belt and grabbed the boy by his hair. Lou didn’t want to watch, but he didn’t dare look away. If Jonas was going to die for him, he owed him that much. Tears welled up in Jonas’ eyes, dripping down his face in dirty rivulets. The blade touched the boy’s throat. Lou knew from his training that a slit throat would be a slow way to die. Gurgling and gasping, bleeding out for minute upon painful minute as the werewolf’s physiology tried to repair itself.
He met the boy’s eyes, wishing that he could reach through the cage to hold his hand – or better yet to kill the Elder and rescue him.
“Don’t tell her…” whispered Jonas. “Don’t tell her anything.”
The Elder’s hand stopped. Lou’s breath caught in his throat. Had all of it been a mock execution? He looked up to the Elder, pleading silently for the boy’s life. Her amber eyes looked into his, hard and unforgiving, boring deep into his soul.
“I see,” said the Elder, her voice flat despite the hint of an accent that Lou thought came from Texas. “And what are these things that you’re not tellin’ me?”
Lou looked down at the floor, down at the stain. Alpha wolves didn’t like eye contact in his experience and this one held their lives in her claws. He knew that silence would only make things worse, but what could he tell her? Maybe minor information, just enough to keep them alive. Maybe he could lie. But he had to tell her something.
“P-prom…” His words stumbled out of his mouth. He steeled himself and huffed out the words. “Promise you won’t hurt him.”
“That’ll depend. See, I got two open tiger cages here and I need three for some new arrivals. If I’m gonna to deal with the hassle of sending them someplace else, you better have something to trade.”
Lou’s eyes were on the knife as he spoke: “I know about the Blood of Saint Christopher. What it does. And that Father Angelo has a supply. He’s going to use it on you.”
The Elder scoffed and Lou felt icy needles in his blood. “Every idiot in town knows about that. What else you got?”
The knife dug into the boy’s throat. Lou knew things, certainly. He knew about safe houses, weapons caches, and operations being planned for other hunter squads. He even might’ve taken a guess at where to find the elusive Father Angelo. But he couldn’t betray his clan by giving that information away, not even for poor Jonas. But maybe there was something else. Some… lesser sin he could commit for the boy’s life.
“You have to promise,” said Lou. “If I give you information, you won’t hurt him.”
“That’ll depend on what you’re telling me, won’t it?” She glared at him, keeping the boy tight in her grip. “I’m a Stidolph. I don’t break my promises. Not even to trash like you.”
Lou wasn’t sure what that name meant. Maybe it had come up in training, during the long, boring lectures that his teachers and Father Angelo gave about lycanthropic history with all of its corrupt bloodlines and evil packs. It didn’t matter. Even if the Elder didn’t plan to keep her promise, Lou knew what she would do if he said nothing.
“I know a… a supply cache,” he said. “Some weapons, money, armor, radios… and silver bullets too! You can have it.”
The Elder sneered at him, revealing a broken tooth. “Probably scrubbed clean hours ago. Either that or your people rigged it up with enough C4 to take out a city block.”
Lou shook his head. “Nobody knows… not anybody alive anyway. It’s a private stash. Room 103 at the abandoned motel, north of Happy Trails, you know of it?”
Saying the words felt like a blade to his belly. Heath was dead, but Lou knew exactly how the veteran would’ve felt if he knew that he’d traded all of his carefully hoarded equipment to a monster for the life of some idiot Versi boy. He shook his head, muttering an apology under his breath, though he wasn’t sure if it was meant for God or Heath’s soul, if it happened to be listening.
“Alright,” said the Elder. “If I like it, I’ll let the boy live, maybe even give some thought to turning him loose. Maybe.”
Lou nodded. “You promise?”
She growled, roughly hauling Jonas to his feet. “I ain’t repeatin’ myself.”
Lou nodded, but instead of putting the boy back into his cage, the Elder grabbed him by the collar of his shirt and began to guide him towards the door.
“WAIT!” Lou slammed his fists against the bars of the cage. “You just said-“
“It’s better if he stays with me a bit, gets a little break.” She paused. “Now, if I don’t find this cache, I promise you that you’ll have a front row seat for his skinning. Because one way or another, he’s gonna be helping the Ulfhednar war effort.”
Lou nodded, weakly. Was it an idle threat or did she mean…? No. No, he didn’t doubt it. He knew about Skinners and there was no reason he could think of as to why any monster with a steady hand and the right equipment couldn’t do it to another.
The door slammed shut and in that instant, the realization that he hadn’t just betrayed his squad, but his entire clan smashed into him with the force of a typhoon. He was irredeemable now; little better than an Ulfhednar himself. A sob choked from his throat and his vision blurred amid tears. He prayed that the Elder would keep her word – for what little that counted. Everything, even his own damnation, might be worth it if the boy would get to live.
Jonas exhaled as the door slammed shut and Aunt Broken Fang, the scarred Elder, released him from her grip. They looked at one another, her amber eyes gazing into his. He’d known those eyes for as long as he could remember. They were loving eyes. Kind eyes. Gentle eyes.
The tears still burned hot, rolling down his cheeks. He could still feel the blade of the dulled knife on his throat.
The Elder looked at him, frowning despite the long scar on her face. “Little one… I’d never, ever hurt you. You know that, right? I’d slit my own throat before I’d put so much as a mark on yours.”
Jonas nodded, but he couldn’t stop the tears. He’d just tricked a Cino into coughing up resources and information. Why was he crying?
His aunt didn’t say a word, but Jonas could tell that she wasn’t Elder Stidolph anymore. He took a step closer and within moments, she pulled him into a hug so tight that if he had been a human, he might’ve worried about fractured ribs. But he wasn’t human. There was something more important than interrogations and weapons caches: family. He wrapped his arms around her waist, glancing at the gauze bandage on her upper arm. His aunt had bled for him – to supply the werewolf blood needed to complete his costume and add the scent to the makeup he wore. It dawned upon him how important that was: she refused to hurt him, even for the sake of the interrogation. Maybe it wasn’t something he would’ve shared with the likes of Hayden, but Jonas was grateful that he had someone like his aunt.
“You did such a good job,” she said, brushing his fingers through his hair. “You’ve got talent for this kind of work. Real talent. I can teach any idiot to shoot good, but what you showed in there, that kind of mind games? That’s something special. I think you’ll make a great Elder one day. If you like that kind of game, hmm?”
Jonas nodded. He had liked that part, he supposed. He’d lied to the Cino – and not for fun, not to avoid trouble, but with a plan in mind. And it had worked. He hadn’t screwed anything up and… it had been fun. The energy that ran through his body like the first taste of psilocybin hallucinations when he first laid eyes on Lou and felt so certain that he’d see right through the ruse. The otherworldly, dreamy sense like THC as he could feel Lou’s terror and his mind wondered if it was real; if he really was safe. And then… then the rush, the raw, primal energy as he’d earned Lou’s trust. An enemy began telling secrets. Jonas had gotten what he wanted. Why couldn’t he just… be proud of himself?
“I liked it,” he said, trying to smile.
“I know,” said his aunt. “But it’s hard isn’t it? Letting yourself be scared. Having to lie. Having to be alone with someone who’d kill you if he had the chance.”
Jonas nodded, though he wasn’t sure if that alone explained it.
“Alright,” said Aunt Broken Fang, releasing her grip on Jonas and gently wiping away his tears. “If Mr. Odin sees us, you’re never gonna heard the end of it.”
She kissed his forehead, heedless of the dirt, and then resumed walking down the concrete floored hall, past empty storage rooms and into the manager’s office. A few hours before, Jonas would’ve considered it a hellhole, but after being in a tiger cage, it seemed downright luxurious. Even having thin, threadbare carpet under his bare feet instead of cold concrete was a welcome change. The walls were covered in a thin layer of drywall and several pasteboard cabinets. Furniture included was a beat-up table, a dozen office chairs of various types and colors, a formerly white coffeemaker that had turned dingy tan, a sea green plaid sofa that looked like it belonged on the curb for trash pickup, and a dented refrigerator that hummed loudly for several minutes at a time until spluttering into silence.
But there was one new, cutting edge fixture in the room: a bank of computer screens showing the outside of the warehouse and the view from the room holding the tiger cages.
The only occupant of the room was Odin, an enormous man and werebear that Jonas couldn’t help compare with Lou... specifically, Jonas thought that Lou was Winnie the Pooh compared to Odin, who was something more akin to the bear that had mauled Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant. Unfortunately, Odin, like Lou, had been poisoned by the Cino magic Blood. Only, unlike Lou, Odin still carried himself like a beast – not to mention that he was far, far, far bigger, bearded, and looked as grizzled as a veteran Viking raider. Jonas remembered what his great aunt had told him about “Old School Ulfhednar,” the werewolves who’d been in Viking bands, including some of the earliest Stidolphs who’d come to England with Hardrada. Maybe Odin’s ancestors had raided, burned, and pillaged the coastline alongside his. Seemed likely. But the real mystery, at least in his opinion, was how the plastic office chair he sat on hadn’t collapsed from the sheer size of the werebear using it.
Odin grunted at the sight of Jonas and his aunt, clutching an old plastic coffee mug from a truck stop. Jonas ignored Odin and walked to the coffee machine, filling a chipped blue cup. It was warm and he held it close.
“I told ya,” said Odin. “The boy’s new. You’re wasting your time, if you want my opinion.”
“Not at all,” said Aunt Broken Fang, opening up a cabinet to remove a pair of electric hot plates. “Back when I was younger, I might’ve pretend to be new meat. Told everybody that I didn’t know nothing and give off a whiff that if they played their cards right, maybe… just maybe, I’d change sides. And if I would’ve done it, somebody else can do it.”
Odin stared at her, looking over his coffee cup. “You think this boy would do that? He’s greener than grass.”
Aunt Broken Fang scoffed, pointing at Jonas. “And he’s a broken Versi boy.”
“Christ,” hissed Odin into his coffee cup. “You Stidolphs are paranoid.”
“We’re careful,” said Aunt Broken Fang, who plugged in the hot plates and began to fill a pot with bottled water.
Jonas flopped on the sofa, coffee cup in hand. “What about the supply cache?” he asked. “We did get that.”
His aunt smiled at him. Jonas couldn’t help but smile back.
“That we did,” she said. “Suppose we’ll need to raid it. Could have a dozen Cinos sitting on it now, could be cleaned out, or it could be what he said it is. Truth be told, I’d rather than first one. Folks on stakeout tend to get sloppy. After a couple hours of starting at the horizon, they tune it out, get real easy to ambush.” She began opening up jars of tomato sauce, pouring them into a pot. “What do you think?”
The room fell silent. Jonas slurped at his coffee, waiting for… nothing. He realized suddenly that his aunt had been talking to him. She wanted to consult him. Him, not Odin. Him! Jonas supposed that this was his first real taste of wartime leadership. It was a strange, ethereal thing that made his stomach wretch and his mouth go dry. He was being consulted by a Clan Elder to tell a centuries old shapeshifter about a matter of life and death.
“Well…” he struggled. “I think it is what he says it is. I think that what we’re going to find, at best, is a couple M16s or AR-type rifles, maybe a pistol or two, a couple low-profile vests, radios that aren’t as good as what we’ve already got, and… maybe five thousand in cash and a couple hundred rounds of silver. At worst, you know, less of that, but not junk. I think that it’s all going to be worth the time to take it. Definitely a nice little haul to keep out of the Cinos’ claws.”
Aunt Broken Fang, now slicing garlic with a long, thin paring knife, raised an eyebrow. “You sound… real specific there, Mr. Stidolph.”
Jonas noticed that Odin was staring at him, a sneer on his face. For a moment, he doubted his assessment, but knew that he was right.
“It think that Lou’s the real thing. B-team maybe, but he’s a hunter.” Jonas paused to sip at his coffee. It was inferior to his aunt’s usual selection and barely hotter than room temperature, but Jonas could feel energy flowing into his body. “And I think that the stash… it’ll have intel in it. Maybe radio codes, a list of contacts, or escape routes, stuff like that. Since the rookie knows about the stash, they might leave something so that he knows where to find it.”
Aunt Broken Fang put down her knife, crossing her arms. She smiled at Jonas. “Is that all?”
“No, ma’am,” said Jonas.
He wasn’t sure what he was going to say, but he felt like he had to say something. Odin was looking at him, his eyes narrowed. Jonas wasn’t sure if that was good or bad. Either way, he didn’t dare back down. He thought back to his time in the cage, thinking carefully of what Lou had told him. Was there some kind of subtext? Something between the lines? After a moment, he thought that he had an idea
“Father Angelo is behind all of this. All of this. We’ve been thinking that Townsend or somebody else might be pushing Angelo ahead, but now I’m thinking that there is no ‘man behind the man.’ What Elders are involved, they’re just… just rolling with the momentum. And I don’t think that Angelo has all that many troops, not if he’s sending rookies at hard targets. And… and I think that if we kill Angelo, I think it’ll all fall apart.”
Aunt Broken Fang glanced at Odin and then back to Jonas. “And you figured all of that out from talking to some fool in a tiger cage?”
Jonas nodded, though his stomach twisted when he was asked to show his work. Giving an opinion was easy. Trying to explain it, however, was another matter entirely.
“Well, uh…” He paused, buying time to think with a sip of coffee. “Lou didn’t mention any Elders. Just Angelo, over and over. If an Elder was doing any of this, why wouldn’t they want credit, at least with their own people? I mean, what kind of Elder lets themselves get shown up by middle management?”
“Because maybe it’s not a Cino Elder,” said Aunt Broken Fang. “Maybe it’s an Elder from another clan. Or maybe a wolf with a lot of resources and connections but no real place in any of the clans working as a silent partner. In fact, I’d say that if he’s got the hardware to equip his B-teams as good as the ones that hit Mr. Odin over there, he’s probably got a few friends outside the clans. Not to mention this Blood nonsense. No way Angelo made this stuff on his lonesome. He’s a field man, not a lab geek.”
Jonas’ jaw fell open. He hadn’t thought of that. It was possible, he supposed, but wasn’t anything possible? Half of his family, including his mother, both of his great aunts, and his grandmother all fit the profile of such a ‘silent partner,’ though he couldn’t imagine why she would do any of this… unless they planned to make money selling weapons, silver bullets, mercenary services, and contracts for hits. And then there was the question of where the Blood had come from. His grandmother dabbled in things like that, but he couldn’t imagine why she would’ve cured werewolves, given that she’d locked herself purposefully into a furred form… or would she? He could feel his mind racing. What about other families? Other factions? Didn’t they have wolves like that? And why limit his suspicions to wolves? What about humans? What about other things? Jonas looked pleadingly to his aunt, but she smiled.
“Hey, c’mon now,” she said. “First of all, I think you’re right that killing Angelo would stop this. All the Blood in the world doesn’t count for much if nobody’s going to finish off the target. But this silent partner thing… don’t feel like you didn’t do good work out there, alright? Somebody like your buddy Lou wouldn’t know about that. It’s just worth keeping in mind is all.”
Odin grumbled, leaning back in his chair. “Like I said, paranoid.”
“No,” said Jonas. “It’s like we said: ‘careful.’”
Odin scowled at him, but Jonas didn’t care. He looked at his aunt and she nodded. That was all he needed to know. He laid back on the couch, looking up at the ceiling. Tonight, he’d done a great thing; an important thing. It was a shame that he wouldn’t be able to tell Ayla about it. In truth, he wouldn’t be able to tell anyone aside from his mother, unless Aunt Broken Fang asked him to share. But that didn’t matter. He’d always know what he’d done.
But there was something else; another duty he owed as a Stidolph. Jonas sat up, watching his aunt silence garlic. It dawned upon him what he needed to do. Finishing the last of his coffee, he climbed to his feet and walked to the cabinet selecting one of the knives. It was as big as his aunt’s bowie knife, but a touch of the blade revealed that it was anything but dull. For a moment, Jonas remembered the steel, remembered the way it pressed against his throat. Quickly, he banished the thought.
Knife in hand, he selected half a dozen miniature peppers from the dented refrigerator, and took his place on his aunt’s right. It was familiar work; slicing off the stem, cutting in half, and then removing the seeds. His aunt reached over, wrapping her arm around his shoulder, pulling him tight into a hug.
“I’m proud of you, little one,” she whispered in his ear, quickly kissing his cheek before returning to her own work.
Jonas didn’t care if Odin saw. He smiled and knew that even in Chambury, so far from his family home and surrounded by enemies, he wasn’t alone. He’d never be alone as long as his aunt was alive.
Lou’s shoulders and wrists ached, but that was bearable. What he couldn’t handle was the gurgling in his stomach. When would he eat? Or would they not feed him, figuring that he wouldn’t live long enough anyway? But that… that was nothing. He tried to imagine what the scarred Elder was doing to poor Jonas. Whatever terrors lingered in his mind were probably nothing compared to what the boy faced.
But he couldn’t believe that. The cache was as he’d said it was. They’d find it, be happy, and Jonas would be either freed or tossed back into the cage next to him. Life. The boy would live and he would live. It wouldn’t be happy and it wouldn’t be comfortable, but if the boy could endure it, he could endure it too. What mattered was that he wasn’t alone, not as long as he knew that the boy was still breathing. It gave him hope for the future. Hope that even his gurgling stomach couldn’t dissolve.