A single lonely coyote howled in the desert night. It sounded much different from the Eastern coyotes I was used to. Different pitch, different tone. A single voice.
I also heard the individual engines of the six motorcycles that escorted us, the heartbeats of their riders, and the fact that the pickup needed a valve job.
The blood on my cheek was drying and becoming sticky, so I carefully moved my head to rub some dirt and rust into it. The bed of the beat-up old truck was full of filth to choose from. Heavy sisal rope bound my hands and feet, digging into my skin, the fibers needling the insides of my wrists. All in all, things were going well.
The hard part was behind me. A lot of prep work had gone into getting me here. My hair and beard were grown out, my jeans, tee, and leather jacket artfully weathered and worn. We even thought about a tattoo, but my skin won’t take them anymore, and a fake one might be too much of a giveaway. The worst was the itchy blue contacts to hide my violet eyes. The best was the vintage Harley shovelhead motorcycle that had been confiscated from a Spawn member in New York.
Walking into the New Mexico bar had been natural, like a soldier in hostile territory. Pretending to be drunk and flirting with the girls who immediately hit on me was much, much harder. I don’t flirt well; in fact, I’ve trained myself to be an anti-flirter. But the hardest part, by far, was managing to take the beating the Loki’s Spawn members had inflicted when they recognized the bike and pegged me as a cop. Being all weres (in this case, wolves), they were much stronger and faster than humans. The punishment had been brutal; in fact, I distinctly heard at least three bones in my face break. But as bad as that had been, it was the fight to control the berserker inside me that was hardest. That part of me had raged to kill them, struggling to get free. To tear them limb from limb, smash their skulls, shred their soft were flesh. And he/ I would have, that demon-bound part of me that I keep jailed deep down in the recesses of my psyche. They were to him/me what humans were to them—prey.
My wounds had long since healed, which is why I was trying to get dirt on my face. It wouldn’t do to look too healthy when I was presented to the leader of this particular nest of Spawn. My third nest in as many weeks, this one only sixteen or seventeen Spawn members. The others had been bigger at twenty-three and forty-one. They were gone. The first I had just simply snuck up on, the guards not really believing anyone would be foolish enough to tackle almost two dozen hardened weres. They lasted two minutes and seventeen seconds.
The larger group I had dropped in on, literally falling from the sky like fury from heaven. Well, fury from the back of a C-130 Hercules transport, anyway. I had the hang of it. Falling, that is. By Lightening my weight and Pushing off the ground below, I could glide down with a fair amount of control. Those vampire energy techniques are downright handy.
That group had lasted almost a full five minutes.
But the plan this time wasn’t to just kill them all, like a surgeon cutting out a tumor. Instead, I needed to grab the leader for questioning; a biopsy of sorts. The rest, well, they weren’t needed for any particular reason, so they wouldn’t be seeing the dawn of a new day.
The lead Harley downshifted, the rest changing pitch almost instantly as the whole convoy turned onto a dirt road. I know it was dirt ‘cause the dust and sand thrown up immediately covered me head to toe. The one wolf riding in the bed of the truck with me coughed once to clear his own clogged airways. The pace was slower now, the road rough and choppy.
Left alone with nothing else to do, my thoughts turned to Tanya. I would be heading back East after tonight, and I was anxious to see her. Three weeks was by far the longest I had gone without seeing her and I was worried she hadn’t been eating right while I was away. Lydia would make sure she had a good supply of bagged blood on hand, but she tended to let meals slide when I wasn’t there. I made a mental note not to bleed too much in the coming fight. Tanya would need it all.
A cool wind blew across the back of the pickup, sweeping away the dust cloud and filling my nose with crisp desert smells. A welcome change from the sour-sharp, unwashed canine odors I had been inundated with during most of the drive.
The pace abruptly slowed, and I heard all but one of the bikes shut down. The pickup pulled up and stopped. I couldn’t see anything, being face down in the back. My ears worked just fine, though, the sound echoing around the small clearing and painting a sonar picture in my head.
A one-story rectangular building sat in the middle of a pack of motorcycles. I’ve gotten pretty good at identifying building materials, at least common ones, by echo, and I was fairly certain the building was constructed of concrete blocks with a sheet metal roof. Loud music rattled the poorly fastened roofing, and after a moment more of listening, I could tell there were ten individuals inside. There were six riders, two more in the cab of the truck, and one in back with me. Our estimate had been for a total of seventeen, so two more wasn’t a big deal.
The dust-covered wolf in the bed of the pickup hauled me up and threw me over the side, where his waiting pack members let me fall to the ground. Of course, the one golf-ball-sized rock within four feet of me happened to be right under my face. Owww.
Two weres, a male and female, grabbed my feet, flipped me to my back, and dragged me to the building, the back of my head finding several more rocks in the desert sand. Weak yellow light spilled from the doorway ahead and I could hear new voices swearing and shouting raucous greetings to the returning Spawn. A single motorcycle still revved, the pitch of the engine telling me it was my confiscated ride. The Spawn driving it rode slowly behind me, letting the big front tire almost graze my head as his gang fellows laughed and pulled me over the threshold and into the nest.
All of these perceptions were peripheral, as most of my attention was centered on the battle for control I was waging with my darker self. The berserker inside me was shaking his cell door, begging for release. I use a lot of mental imagery to help control my own demon. I have a carefully crafted mental picture of a heavy, iron-bound, reinforced cell door with massive bars and hinges fastened into the solid bedrock of my mind. Gina had suggested this technique and together, we had built my dark half’s prison, image by image. Because the berserker is just another aspect of me, the images have real strength and value. The stoutness of the door was therefore vital to my plan, simple as it was. The beast would have to heel if this was going to work.
My two draggers dropped my feet after pulling me about a third of the way into the room. The door was in the center of the long front of the building. The inside was typical of a crappy backcountry bar. Poured concrete floor, covered in filth and dried sour beer. My nose told me that substantial amounts of blood had been spilled in the not-too-distant past. The rear wall was a long bar, backed by a mirror and the requisite neon beer signs. A beat-up stereo on one corner of the liquor rack banged out what sounded like George Thorogood. Two weres sat at the bar along with the stout bartender, all giving me a hungry stare.
Loki’s Spawn are cannibalistic, happy to eat their victims while in animal form. It added to the terror the gang inspired; most weres frown on eating humans, considering it a crime punishable by death.
The were riding my purloined Harley parked it in the center of the room. Three gang members lined the inside wall, just to the right of the door. Two more stood back by a couple of doors that most likely led to the kitchen and bathrooms. Three from the group that captured me came in and took up positions in front of the door.
A shitty old pool table was angled near the right side of the bar, two more Spawn with pool cues watching, yellow eyes glittering. That made sixteen. My sonar sense told me the last three were in the corner to the left of the bar where I could just see a raised performance platform around the legs of my draggers. One of the three in the corner headed our way, his slow, measured step telling me he was the dominant wolf of this sordid little pack. About six feet tall, solidly built, with black hair and a narrow, trimmed black beard that came to a point on his chin. His face was angled, his skin tight without any spare flesh. Black eyes stared at me coldly while his mouth quirked in a pleased grin.
He didn’t say anything at first, just walked around the confiscated Harley, one hand casually gliding over the chromed handlebars and flame-painted gas tank. His fingers lingered on the skull-engraved gas cap.
“Did you think a shitty paint job and a new gas cap would fool us?” he asked.
Half of the pack growled at his words, and I could smell their anger begin to build.
“José here helped Snyder rebuild this engine,” he said, nodding at a stocky wolf by the door. José growled loudly and his face shifted slightly, as though it was semi-liquid. The smell of anger intensified.
“But we haven’t heard from Snyder or any of the others that went East in quite some time, which is why you’re here and not dead in the desert,” he said, his voice even.
Virtually all the pack members were growling now, a low pitched, hair-raising vibration that rolled through my chest and spoke to the primitive side of me. Some were beginning to Change, the ones who could control the shift from man to beast. Wet pops and cracks spoke of the transformation from human to animal.
The two wolves on either side of me grabbed my arms with hair-covered hands and pulled me to my feet to face the leader. My personal guards were skilled, as they were transforming into the beast-man form (beast-woman in one case) while holding my arms. The male was almost seven feet tall in beast form, the female well over six. Both were corded with massive muscles. Only the leader held his human form while he stared at me with cold black eyes.
“Scary, isn’t it?” he chuckled.
A whimper sounded from the corner platform by the bar, and when he turned to look back at it, I got my first good look at the two individuals who crouched there.
I don’t remember if it was Carl von Clausewitz or Helmuth Moltke who first coined the famous military phrase ‘No plan survives first contact with the enemy.’ Probably Moltke, but I’m not sure…I wasn’t there.
My plan had survived first, second, and third contacts with my enemies. The point where it all fell apart was first contact with the children.
There were two of them, very obviously brother and sister, huddled in the corner, terrified by the Changing weres in the bar. The girl alone would have been enough to ruin my plan. At first, I thought she was thirteen or so, but I realized her fear and posture made her seem younger. Probably closer to sixteen. Like her brother, she looked to be close to full-blood Native American, her long black hair snarled and matted with dirt. She was wearing lime green sleep shorts and a stained white cami. I only know it was called a cami from my exposure to Tanya, Lydia, Nika, and every other female vamp who thought parading around Coven quarters half-dressed was natural. She literally shook with fear, the smell of it finally reaching me past the wet-dog stink of half-Changed weres. But she had positioned her slight body between the pack and her little brother. He was eight or nine, wearing just X-Men pajama bottoms, as he tried to make himself smaller. Suddenly, I flashed to my own childhood.
I’m curled on the floor of my brother’s closet, my hands over my ears, trying to keep the horrific sounds of my family’s death from reaching my brain. But the wet thunks of the ax and the sharp screams of my father, mother, and big brother cut straight through to my soul. Marcus had shoved me into the little space in the back of his closet where he kept girly magazines and stuff he didn’t want Mom to find. Then he had rushed to his death, which I was hearing in stark detail now. When the quiet came, it was a relief…at first. But the slow, steady footsteps of the stranger with the ax became almost as bad as my family’s death cries.
The carefully constructed, steel-reinforced vault door on the prison cell in my mind shattered like cheap window glass, and the beast was out.
The leader turned his head back to me, a sneer on his face. Immediately, he sensed something different about me, his expression changing slightly.
“That’s not scary! You wanna see scary?” a voice not my own said, using my mouth.
He blinked, which meant he almost missed the whole thing.
I felt mono-molecular edges form themselves around the outside of my hands and arms, cutting the heavy rope instantly. Formed from my strange violet aura, the edges are, I’m pretty sure, the sharpest blades on the planet. They sliced through the two weres holding me, cutting through their torsos without resistance, which was kind of too bad, ‘cause I wanted some resistance. Leaving the suddenly bisected guards, my arms slammed forward in front of me.
My hands came together, back of thumb to back of thumb in the center of the leader’s torso, my middle fingers just exiting his back. His eyes were only halfway through his blink. They opened as his upper body slid to the floor, following the split bodies of his two minions. At least he got to see a little bit of scary.
The 360-degree display that forms in my head at times like this plotted everyone’s position inside the building, the vehicles outside the building, the soldiers standing watch a mile away, even the AC-130 gunship that circled at forty thousand feet two miles distant with thermal cameras rolling.
I turned to my right side, slammed my left hand through the chest of the were on the Harley, not bothering to use the mono-edges, just raw power. My hand crushed his heart, then gripped his spine like a handle. I pulled, lightly, and tossed his body across the room behind me, hearing it splat into the wall. My right hand grabbed the front fork of the Harley and I pulled heavily, smashing the big bike into the weres lined up against the wall. I managed to crush two of the three before I swung the bike forward and threw it across the room at the bar. The physics of a two-hundred-pound man throwing a six-hundred-pound motorcycle one-handed are complex, but my manipulation of them was instinctual. Posting my body to the floor with a column of energy gave me the anchor necessary to launch the heavy bike. The sitting weres had risen in time to get in the way of the Harley as it crashed through the bar, the mirror and, finally, the concrete block wall behind it.
Five more down. The bartender, still in man form, had managed to slip out of the path of the six-hundred-pound chrome-and-steel missile and was starting to grope for something in the remaining part of the bar. I ignored him, moving instead to crush the skull of the last were on the wall with a left punch. I also managed to punch completely through his head and the wall behind. I bounded to the two by the kitchen door, forward flipping in the air, and dropped an ax kick onto the top of one’s head with a mono-spiked heel. The spike drove through his brain, but in hindsight, it probably wasn’t necessary. His head was crushed flat by the force of the kick, which also drove his neck down into his torso. He died with a snarl on his face, as the other, in wolf form, lunged for me, snapping her huge jaws like a bear trap. I stuck my left forearm in her mouth, letting her own bite force drive the insanely sharp edges on my arm through her top and bottom jawbones, slicing her hardened teeth like clay. As the front of her face fell off, I ended her participation in the fight with a reverse knife-hand strike through her left armpit and out her right shoulder, cleaving her into wet chunks of furry meat.
The two at the pool table were rushing me. Well, the closer one was, in wolf form. His pool partner, in beast-man form, was picking up the heavy pool table, most likely to throw at moi.
A bolt of dark purple power shot from my right hand, the concentrated burst of particles blasting the legs completely off the were holding the table. He fell, the table fell, and he squished.
I sidestepped the rushing wolf, grabbed him by the throat, and slammed his skull into a convenient pocket of the pool table. Werewolf in the corner pocket! Easy shot!
The bartender had pulled a battered Ithaca pump shotgun from under the bar. I called it to my left hand, using aura like a rope, pulling it from his grip and across the room. Then I shot him with it three times. Hmm, must be silver buckshot from the look of the wounds, which blackened and burned. I put the last two rounds into one of the wolves by the door, then jammed the barrel of the empty gun down through the skull of my pool pocket buddy, pinning his twitching body in place.
The wounded wolf at the door fell, and his two partners, one male, one female, shot out the door on four feet, having come to the conclusion that they had better places to be. My aura-edged left hand clipped the downed wolf’s head from his body as I rushed by. I caught the first wolf just six feet outside the door, running over her sprinting wolf form with aura-spiked boots that snipped her spine and pinned her heart, then head, to the desert floor. Leaping from her back, I wreathed my body in mono-edges, grabbed the remaining wolf with my arms and legs, then sort of shimmied around him till he fell apart in little chunks, his head flying about sixty-five feet.
Seventeen down. Time elapsed: nine point three seconds.
Copyright John Conroe