Not my universes, not my characters, no claim is put on them in any way. I promise to return them upon request only slightly rumpled.
Darn plot bunnies. They won't go away until I write things out, and I can't get back to Demonchasers until this is partly resolved.
This was supposed to be my night off. Well not totally off, but I only had two very routine zombie raisings on the schedule. Once the post-death issues surrounding Mrs. Calhoun's will, and Mr. Tabor's love life had been resolved, I was theoretically free for a rare night on my own- the pard was off at work, the ardeur was fed enough to stay quiet another day, and with any hope, the night would be free of preternatural violence or other supernatural content and I would finally get eight uninterrupted hours of sleep for the first time in recent memory. But the universe, she hates me these days.
Or maybe it was just Richard hating me and pulling my chain. We hadn't been talking much lately, so it was a surprise to hear his voice when I picked up the phone. His words had been oddly formal. The first request had been that of an ulfric requesting his bolverk's presence at some critical event. Dress for a run through the woods and for cleaning up a mess; no need to worry about impressing anyone in the morning. The second request had been to the nimir-ra asking permission to bring Cherry along on the trip because they wanted a medical person on call and Dr. Lillian wasn't available. I had answered yes to both questions, and after a brief mention that they would pick me up at four thirty, he had hung up on me before I could ask anything else.
Though he hadn't said much, what he didn't say sounded bad. I opted for khaki cargo pants, all the pockets making it easier to carry extra amunition for the Browning and Firestar, and just loose enough around my calf muscles that I could hide an ankle holster down there. Shoes were an aging pair of Nikes that were sold for trail running that I used for hiking sometimes. I layered a forest green t-shirt, the gun holsters and knive sheaths, and topped it off with a khaki windbreaker. I felt loaded for bear, or whatever it was we were going to be chasing later on tonight.
I heard the van coming up the drive before I saw it, and managed to be next to it before the driver could flick the lights at me. It was a fifteen passenger van with the back two of the five rows of seats pulled out. Jamil drove, and Richard rode shotgun. Cherry sat in the next row, and Shang-Da loomed in the row behind her. Save for Cherry, who had pulled on a black tank top and what looked like camoflage print pajama bottoms, they were dressed to shift in old clothes probably bought by the bagful from Goodwill. Even Shang-Da was looking scruffy. All wore very serious faces.
"Richard, so what's going on tonight?" I said as I slid into the seat next to Cherry. He fumbled at a combination vcr and small television set, the kind parents bring on long car trips so their kids can watch Disney movies instead of screaming about whether they were there yet.
"Watch a little of this, and it makes the explanation easier." He plugged the tv cube into the cigarette lighter for power, and angled the screen so I could see it. I noticed in the light of the spedometer console that Cherry was determinedly staring at her nail polish, and Shang-Da was fascinated by something just outside the window. Richard then hit play and mute at the same time.
It was a snuff movie. Werewolves chasing humans through a mix of woods and farmlnd and mauling to death. Not just one death on the tape like I had seen before, but three different people mauled to death. I hit the stop button, having seen enough.
"I thought the film business was shut down for good." I said, my voice a bit shaky as I leaned against Cherry for comfort.
"In St.Louis, it is. And no other pack leader would condone something like this happening in his territory either. But there is still a black market for those kinds of films, and there are places in between pack territories where some can hide while they do that kind of evil." Shang-Da said.
"The Ulfrics have been working together to trace the source of the tapes since the first one surfaced a couple months ago. Yesterday morning, I got word from Tim in Carbondale that they had been made on a farm just outside of Mt. Vernon, Illinois.I just wish it had come sooner. We know of at least a dozen human deaths from the films." My mind translated Tim in Carbondale as Ulfric of the Anthracite Hills Clan. "Since no one pack claims Mt. Vernon as their territory, his plan is to draw groups of wolves from his clan, the Thronnos Rokke Clan, and Clans out of Paducah, Evansville, and Urbana. A chance for different clans to work together and get to know each other, and no one looks like they're trying to take advantage of the situation and expand their territory in the process."
"The lycanthrope's version of a team building exercise then. Just don't ask me to do one of those things where you lean backward and everyone has to catch you." I said remembering the one time Bert had tried to drag everyone at Animators, Inc. to one of those corporate retreats with a ropes course. That day had gone very badly.
"But we would." Cherry insisted.
"You'll help us deal with the situation, Bolverk?" Richard asked. I could tell he wasn't crazy about me being in the hunting party, but he was trying to put aside differences for a day for the sake of stopping the monsters.
"I'm your weapon for this, Ulfric." I guess manners just might be a good thing to hide behind when you were dealing with the awkward.
"Good. We should make it to Mt. Vernon right before dawn. Meet up with the other clan representatives at the Silver Dollar Truck Stop just off of I-57, and then we take care of business." The van went quiet after that. About a minute later, Shang-Da spoke up.
"If anyone's interesting in watching something different, there's a tape of The Blues Brothers buried under the driver's side seat up front."
"That would be good." I said. Napping in the van was out. I'd be seeing dead girls every time I closed my eyes. Cherry reached down to recover the comedy tape, and swapped it for the black one.
"We're eighty miles from Mt. Vernon, we've got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it's dark, and we've wearing sunglasses." Shang-Da intoned from the back seat. I thought I caught a hint of smile on his face among the shadows.
"Would have thought you were a Belushi and Aykroyd fan." I said.
"What can I say? They understood the importance of dressing well."
Mt. Vernon is at a geographic border of sorts in southern Illinois. To the north you get dead flat prairie turned into farm land complete with amber grains waving. South takes you through ancient mountains that were worn down to tree covered hills millenia ago. We were the last group to arrive at the Silver Dollar. The other groups had claimed a small picnic area about a hundred yards from the truck stop buildings proper. A couple maps were spread over one picnic table. Another held a couple boxes of donuts and a set of coffee pitchers brought over from the diner. Abbreviated greetings were exchanged among the packs.
"Anita Blake. You brought a federal marshal here, Richard?" Tim said.
"Anita's my bolverk. She doesn't always bring the law in to handle problems."
"And I understand I'm metaphorically leaving my badge at home for this one." I still had it physically with me. It was the sort of thing that could be useful in a jam for dealing with redneck cops on unfamiliar ground. But I accepted that the only way to really deal with the film makers was through pack channels.
"Glad we're on the same page then." Tim waived us toward the food table. "Donuts and drink on me. Army moves best when stomach aren't growling."
"Go ahead and have some if you want." Richard added, one ulfric agreeing with the other. I helped myself to a coffee (not bad tasting by truck stop standards) and a donut (chocolate with sprinkles) and the gathering began.
"Thanks everyone for coming. Hopefully we can deal with this ugliness as quickly and quietly as possible and get back to where we belong." Tim said. "You have heard that the Wyoming state legislature has introduced a bill legalizing lycanthropy there?" There were mumbled yesses in the crowd. "Be good to make sure they don't get any more reasons to vote no on it this time. Khalil?"
"After we got an address on the place, we pulled the building permits on it from the county. It's a hundred acre parcel, mix of woods and farm land, one large house on it, one small mobile home, two barns, and a couple smaller outbuildings. The trailer was new last year. On the same electrical account as the house if it means anything." He gestured at a drawing from the building permits department that showed the placement of the houses and barns on one corner of the farm.
"Now here's what I was thinking for a plan. If you've got better ideas, let me know." Tim was not only in charge of the ROTC program at Southern Illinois University, but also was a military strategy buff. The other wolves might offer minor tweaks to the plan but overall would respect his planning skills. "We park just off the road where the cars and vans will be hidden and make our way through the woods to the compound. Four groups- one searches the main house, one for each barn, and one for the trailer and outbuildings. Remember to figure out beforehand who your designated drivers are going to be beforehand. I know you're all strong and good or you wouldn't be here, but shifting and driving's the equivalent of having six of seven beers and getting behind the wheel. You know your pack members better than I do. I'll open it up for suggestions on how to divvy the troops up." The ulfrics quickly sorted everyone out. I found myself on the outbuildings group with Cherry, a male paramedic from Evansville named Shannen, and Kyle and Billy from Paducah, who struck me as the strong but not too bright types.
To my surprise, Shannen pulled a Beretta out of his backpack and tucked it in a holster in his waistband as we worked our way through introductions.
"I figure they brought me along for my human hands. Kind of hard to patch people up in the field with claws."
"How well can you use that?"
"Took up target shooting when I was a corpsman with the Navy. When I got out of the service, I kept it up because I enjoyed the discipline."
"And live targets?"
"You do what you have to do. I really would like to keep the gunfire to a minimum though because the silver bullets are expensive, and I don't exactly have a huge bank account these days."
"Well the less you miss, the less you have to worry about that." one of the Paducah boys added as he stripped away clothing in preparation for shifting.
"Good thing I put in all the range time then, I guess." Shannen said.
The farm smelled of pine and Vick's Vapor Rub. The pine came from the trees in the forested part of the land. The Vick's came from what I was thinking of as the strike team. Rub some of it on your tailbone or the base of your tail, and it was easy for everyone else to smell if you were part of the strike team or part of the problem. Shannen and I approached the front door of the doublewide, with Kyle and Billy shifted and ready to run down anyone who tried to bolt through the back door. Cherry lagged behind us with instructions to stay out of the line of fire as much as she could. I had offered her the second Firestar from the ankle holster, but she had turned it down. After a soft yip from the Paducah boys letting us know they were in place, Shannen and I drew our weapons.
He reached over to the doorway, with one hand tearing the door off its hinges.
"Freeze. No one moves, and no one gets hurt." I yelled as we went through the door together.
We came into the trailer through the kitchen. It looked like a factory model- white cabinets, a small white dinette set, the countertops sparkling clean. The only signs of human use were a couple of coffee cups washed and left drying on a towel near the sink. We could hear but not quite see movement in what looked to be the living room just beyond the kitchen. We moved through the archway seperating the rooms.
The living room had been turned into a film studio. It was a mess of cables, monitors, and AV flotsam and jetsam I couldn't quite identify. A blond man and a dark-haired man were in the room, scrambling away from seats in front of one of the monitors. Dark hair tripped over a cable as he attempted to bolt out of the room. Blond decided to go towards us instead. He howled, beginning to change as he charged. Claws had just started to come out of his hands when Shannen and I both fired. He dropped, two silver bullets going through his heart.
Dark hair made it to the back door before the Paducah boys attacked him, rattling the trailer as they leveled him against the outside walls. I could faintly hear their howling and growling outside desipte the ringing in my ears from the sound of the gunshot. Shannen leaned down to check on Blond, and nodded to me to indicate the man was really dead. Then using hand signals to communicate, we swept through two videotape-filled bedrooms. I guess they had been not only producing but reproducing the films in-house. The search didn't turn up anyone else, and the ringing in my ears had gone down just enough to get my hearing back when we made our way back out of the trailer.
Cherry and the boys met us outside. By now, I could hear the sounds of wolves fighting wolves coming from other areas. Apparently, we hadn't been the only ones to run into some of the filmmakers. We continued our sweep of the grounds, briefly checking through a potting shed before ending in front of a chicken coop. Shannen raised his hand to get us to pause.
"I smell human in there." He said.
"Human, and hurt or sick or both." Cherry confirmed, sniffing the air as well. She moved her backpack around on her shoulders like she was getting ready to pull something out of it.
"Anyone else in there?" I said.
"No, just the one." She said.
"I'll go in first then. You and Shannen just behind. Guys, hold back out of sight and make sure no one interrupts us. I get the feeling whoever's in there doesn't want to see you." The boys bobbed their heads and took sentinel positions out of the line of sight of the coop doorway.
In contrast to the trailer, the coop was squalor. A box-like structure with the only light coming from the doorway and a couple of faint vents in the attic, it had a dirt floor still smelling not so faintly of chicken shit, and a bucket in the middle that smelled of human waste. As I turned right, I caught sight of the kid.
"Hey there." I said. I didn't buy the Browning away altogether, but I did point it down to the floor.
"Hey yourself." He was on the dirt floor curled in a ball, arms hugging his knees, leaning on his left side, and naked except for a pair of basketball shorts. He had dark hair and looked to have pale skin under the dirt. He didn't have the ripped look of someone who went to the gym, but there was a solidness to him that suggested he was used to physical labor. His shins were crossed with claw marks; his visible arm bore an angry mess of bites.
"We're the rescue party. I'm Anita Blake."
"Xander." he said. I was half surprised he didn't seem to recognize my name. "I'm really going to get to walk away from here instead of getting buried out in the woods?"
"You're going to walk out of here. I'm not going to let anyone else hurt you." I holstered the Browning and reached to help him off the ground.
He waved me away, shakily standing on his own. He turned out to be taller than I was, but then most people were. As he approached me, he seemed to relax for a split second, and then drove an elbow into my diaphragm. I tried to grab him even as I doubled over but he bolted out the door just past my reach.
"Shannen!" I yelled. There was a thunk as Shannen grabbed Xander, the two crashing to the ground.
"I got him." There was a pause. "Shit, he stabbed me!"
"We've still got ahold." Cherry said. I took a second to catch my breath and went back outside. Shannen still had Xander down in a tackle, though he was bleeding from a wound in his left leg. Cherry had pinned his wrists. Adrenaline-laced attempt at freedom or not, he was human, and wasn't going to wrestle himself clear of two weres.
"You okay Shannen?"
"I'll recover. He got me with a, what did you get me with, kid?"
"Hunk of pottery." Xander stopped struggling and his body went limp under the pile. I could hear defeat in his voice. "They decided I'd probably run better next time if they fed me once in a while. So they gave me a bowl of soup last night after the night's hide and seek with the big doggies. Part of the coop has a cement slab. I dropped the bowl, and it broke but a couple pieces were big enough to try to use as knives."
"Smart thinking." I had to admire the kid's resourcefulness.
"They said they like the way I ran, the way I fought back, so they let me live the first three times. But I can feel myself getting weaker, and I'm not coming back the fourth time. I keep expecting that this is all some set up for the next movie, and that you're really working for them."
"It's not. Look we can show you we're not working with them. Listen out there, there's a big fight going on and we're taking out the bad guys." I said as the sounds of the other wolves fighting was clearly heard in the distance. "We're going to get you back on your feet and take a walk over to the trailer. Billy and Kyle, watch our backs here." I said to the trees. The two wolves would stay just out of sight.
Cherry and Shannen mostly carried Xander back to the trailer. Shannen was careful to keep Xander's arms away from his holster, and his bleeding leg to the outside.of the trio. We stopped when we got to what was left of the dark-haired man.
"There's your proof." I said.
"You can let go of me here. I won't run. He said his name was Bret." he said. Shannen and Cherry released him, and he took a couple of wobbly steps forward toward the corpse. And with what must have been his remaining strength, Xander kicked the remains of Bret in the balls. He took a couple steps back, and sunk to the ground.
"Bad enough to think the only way out is dying. Even worse when the dying isn't about saving the world but just some sick fucks playing John Wayne Gacy with you and you don't even get to see the scary clown pictures. Not that I like scary clown pictures, but Wills says I should at least go out and try to look at more art and broaden my horizons and shit. I thought it really was going to be the end this time." Cherry bent over him, starting to inspect the damage the rogue wolves had done.
"You're my patient now. I'm not going to have you off and dying on me. So we're going to get started on patching you up." She started softly telling him. She put an arm across his back to help him up, and he flinched away. "It's okay. I really am not going to hurt you. I just want to get you back to the van so we can get the good painkillers for you."
"It's okay. It's okay." he said, fighting reflexes as Cherry picked him up.
"First things first. I don't like the look of the oldest set of bite marks." The rest of us stared at the wounds. They weren't healing right, all red and puffy where they shouldn't be. A couple of the claw marks were looking infected as well. "Mammals have all sorts of nasty bacteria in their mouths. I've seen people end up hospitalized for two weeks after getting bit by housecats." We began walking him back through the woods to the vans. "So what we're going to do is start pushing iv antibiotics as soon as we get back to my medical kit in the car. They'll help your body fight off the infection and get you back on your feet quicker." Considering how bad Xander was cut up, I was surprised he'd be needing antibiotics at all.
"We're also going to get you to a doctor as quickly as we can. The bite marks are going to need to be opened up to drain out the infection, and cut away some of the dead tissue." Shannen was almost as good as Cherry when he kicked into health care professional mode. His voice was matter of fact about what was going on, but still managed to be soothing.
"That drill again? Why is is when they talk about losing a pound of flesh, it's really that the monster only took half of it, and the doctor had to cut off the other half pound before the gangrene or blood poisoning or whatever killed me? Oh well, at least they're not going to have to cut as deep as with the sidalin bite. And I'm, sorry about trying to kill you there, dude." Shannen mumbled some sort of all was forgiven to his patient.
"How did you manage to get bit by a sidalin? I thought they were supposed to be just shy of extinct?" Not that it would have been any great loss if they were gone. The sidalin were small magical predators, the biggest were three feet tall upright. But what they lacked in size, they made up for in terms of nastiness, bad temper, and general unpleasantness. They were also quick, and reportedly not particularly easy to kill.
"I grew up in Sunnydale."
"The very place. Give the nice lady with the shiny gun her Turtle Wax. Sooner or later every type of monster you can think of within the three closest dimensions shows up there. I think it's a city ordinance or something or there's sort of metaphysical truck stop for the weird and dangerous vibe going on."
Sunnydale. Before the white man came to North America, that area held an outpost of the fae on Earth. When the Spanish came, a series of events involving the outpost led to a huge battle between the Europeans and the fair folk. The Spanish had won, if you can really call losing ninety percent of your fighting orce winning, but the fae unleashed a powerful curse on the land. Nothing magical worked in the same way it did in the rest of the world. A handful of monsters were weaker there, but most got more powerful the closer they got to Boca del Inferno. Vampires could walk during the day, provided they stayed out of direct sunlight. Even alpha weres couldn't control their beast near the town. There were rumors of many other things that weren't supposed to be able to happen happening in Sunnydale.
"Tough place to grow up." Cherry said.
"Mostly, we were big into denial. You tried to pretend that nothing really did go bump, snarl, grr, aargh in the night. It usually worked surprisingly well."
"And the sidalin?"
"It was a pet of one of yet another one of those guys trying to use the 'Create Your Own Apocalypse' in-home kit. Don't remember his name. The constant stopping of the end of the world runs together after a while." Maybe there was truth to the rumors that things had gotten dramatically worse in Sunnydale in the past five years.
Talk paused, and we made it back to the van. Cherry's super nurse tendencies kicked in as we opened up the back of the vehicle. She left Shannen to prop Xander up, slipped a pair of gloves on, and quickly went digging through coolers and boxes, mumbling she was glad Richard told her to pack a kit for human as well as were. Pulling an iv bag out of the cooler, she attached it to a coat hook in the van.
"I want to start a line first and so the ampicillin is getting into your system. As that's going on, I'm going to start cleaning up those cuts in hopes you don't have to deal with any more infections. I just need you to have a seat, and we can begin."
"It, um." Xander started, staring down at his feet so he would not have to make eye contact with any of us. "Sitting's not really an option for me right now."
"Okay, we'll have you lie down here then." She shoved a couple bags of clothes toward the seats, saving one to use as a pillow. "Right side or left side hurt worse?"
"Left side is easier to lie on." he said. He gritted his teeth as Shannen and Cherry placed him in the van. Cherry started the iv, and the two then moved on to trying to clean up the worst of the wounds as best they could. I noticed that Xander kept trying to flinch away from them. Part of that was from the physical, but the other part was psychological. If I had been through what he had been through, I probably wouldn't want people who were essentially strangers touching me either. But maybe there was something I could do to help him, even though he may or may not be infected with the were virus.
I looked at the areas around the vans. The boys had followed us, and were standing guard a few steps past me. I figured I could be less than alert for a few minutes since they could sound an alarm if Vicks-free wolves came close by. So I closed my eyes and reached out to the munin, then reached out toward Xander. No connection. It probably hadn't been going to work, but I had to try.
So I ended up spending the next hour outside the van along with the Paducah boys, guarding a young man who was probably going to be the only survivor of the farm. If the filmmakers had been holding more people, the good wolves would have gotten them back to the vans by now, and from the sound of it, the wolves were doing an enthusiastic job taking care of the filmmakers. Finally, a human though bloody Richard and wolf-shaped Shang-Da and Jamil made their way back to the vans.
Richard slid into the driver's seat. Jamil and Shang-Da shifted back to human form, pulling clothes on, and then crashing into the van themselves. I was relieved to see Jamil claim shotgun, since I really didn't want to spend the drive home sitting next to Richard. Shannen said a fairwell and headed back to his own pack's van as I took the back seat closest to Cherry and Xander.
"Richard, our survivor needs to get to a hospital. A doctor needs to clean his wounds out."
"We'll take him to the clinic then. Hospitals would have to report a were attack, and there are too many questions that would get asked." And that we didn't have answers for yet was the unspoken continuation. "Don't worry. We won't let anything happen to you, kid. We'll get you fixed up and make sure the clans do right for what you went through." I could feel Richard's guilt through the marks. He had wanted so badly to protect the humans from the Beast and had failed. Never mind that he had worked to stop the films as soon as he had learned of them, he still should have been able to prevent Xander from getting hurt, and others from getting killed if he had just somehow acted sooner.
"Shit happens." Xander said from the back. "For some reason, trouble seems to follow me like one of those yappy little ankle-biting dogs. It's just the way it is."
I smiled at his description, remembering days of Mrs. Pringle's dog Custard yipping away in front of my old apartment. As Richard drove us back toward St. Louis, I felt like under the grime and claw marks, Xander was a bit of a kindred spirit.