The Contingent

Howl

Dain came stumbling out of the cabin he shared with Ed, boots untied and trying to navigate the shirt on his head as he scampered down the steps. Behind him poured a stream of curses and yelling, quickly muffled by a slamming door.

Dain sank onto the picnic bench just outside their cabin and started to make sense of his boots, their laces, and what the hell had just happened. He pointedly ignored Victoria and Terry, who sat on the other side of the table, grinning.

“Honeymoon’s over, huh, boss?” Victoria teased.

Dain’s eyes jerked up and pinned her in place as he growled. “Drop it, Simmons.”

Her grin only got bigger, but she fell silent. Her partner-in-crime, however, did not.

“I dunno, Alpha,” Terry continued, mock concern on his face. “Some of us are worried. Here, I brought this back from town for you.”

He slid a pamphlet on doggie obedience school across the table, with the phone number circled over and over. It was in a loud color and clearly decades old from some sort of animal rescue clinic. Dain’s glare intensified as his eyes panned from Terry and back to Victoria. “So, which one of you should I tell Ed brought this to me?” he countered, waving the brochure at the cabin behind him.

Terry’s body darted across the table, his hand snatching the offending item away from Dain and, just as quickly, stuffing it into his mouth and starting to chew. “Nah, we’re good,” he mumbled around the wad of paper. Making a face of disgust, he swallowed and shook his head trying to rid it of the foul taste.

Dain returned to his boots. “I hope you get paper cuts on that thing’s way out,” he muttered.

Terry was too busy patting down his numerous pockets in search of anything to rid his mouth of the flavor of ink and paper to respond. Victoria said what was on everyone’s mind though. “These days, I think most of us would take that over having to deal with Ed,” she quietly responded.

The duo rose in unison a fraction of a moment before Dain and the three of them walked towards the Farm’s edge in uncomfortable silence. Only the sound of their boots crunching in the snow broke the stillness. Once well out of hearing range of the cabin, Dain responded. “Yeah, I get that. I have no clue what’s up with him. He’s just…mad. Constantly. Wild mood swings. Everything sets him off.”

Victoria and Terry shared a glance. Dain’s admission that he’d lost the understanding of his mate’s behavior was unsettling. “What about Alex?” Victoria asked. “She’s usually able to talk sense into him.”

Dain shook his head. “Simon’s had no luck getting up with her or Jonas after they left for Europe. I’m starting to believe that was some sort of code with Jonas’s pack.”

“Have you asked Leanna about it?” she continued.

Dain rubbed his beard in thought. “Not yet. I’m hoping the few days apart will help clear the air. Rekindle the fires and all that.”

Terry’s facial expression clearly meant he wasn’t buying it. “I dunno, I’d be more worried about coming back to find all my stuff on fire, to be honest.”

Dain’s body language changed, shoulders rising and gait stiffening. Victoria, sensing the anger rolling off of him, tried to make light of Terry’s remarks. “Man, I think that’s just a thing that happens to you. The rest of us have normal break ups.”

As soon as the words left her mouth, she realized her mistake. Dain spun in place to glare at the both of them. They instantly averted their gaze, looking away and baring their necks. “How about we do our fucking jobs and patrol the pack lands and stop running our damn mouths?” he seethed. “Is that something you two can do?”

“Yes, Alpha,” they both mumbled.


A few nights later, two wolves the size of horses stood over the body of a similarly large creature not of this world. Moonlight bathed the two as they crunched through bone, sinew, and unnatural construction. Blood and ectoplasmic residue were splattered across the snow. Steam rose from the cooling corpse and a slightly phosphorescent ichor evaporated in the moonlight. A short distance away, a grey wolf of similar size rubbed its back against a massive aspen tree. Even after removing this threat from the far reach of the packlands, the uncomfortable itch of something wrong kept bothering Dain. The itch had gotten worse over the last few days, and he had assumed it had to do with the underworld spirit they’d slain earlier in the night. But now it was only getting worse, to the point Dain could think of little else.

A distant howl, felt rather than heard, froze all three in place. Victoria and Terry’s tails dropped between their legs as they scurried over towards Dain, whimpering.

It came again, this time a mix of rage and agony. It felt like home and belonging and loss and confusion to Dain, like something intimately familiar and completely beyond understanding. It pulled at him in a way he hadn’t felt since…

Ed.

In an instant, Dain sprang forward, a flash of cracking bones and twisting flesh. His form shrank into that of a traditional wolf, becoming leaner, smaller, and faster. Terry and Victoria, pulled along by the ferocity of the emotions coming from Dain, also transformed and followed without question. The countryside sped by them in a blur as Dain pushed himself to the edge of his own physical ability.

The howls increased in strength and anguish as the distance shrank. Through forests and underbrush, across streams and grasslands they raced, finally reaching the dusty road leading to the cabins. Approaching Dain’s home, outside stood a small crowd, the fear and confusion thick in the air. There were sounds of something crashing around inside, along with Ed’s wails of suffering. Windows were broken out, broken furniture scattered in the surrounding grass.

Victoria and Terry collapsed to the grass, tongues lolling out of their mouths in heavy panting. Dain launched himself at the cabin’s door, transforming back to human form as he leapt.

Dain’s leap ended against the stout human form of Forseti Torvald. Big Man collided with Dain mid-leap, tackling him through the picnic table the trio had sat at just a few days ago.

The roar from Dain shook the very ground. Pack members shrunk away and fled, but Forseti refused to let go. Double D and Simon raced to Forseti’s aid, desperately trying to hold Dain in place.

“Dain, stop!” rang out a woman’s voice.

Without fear, Marissa put herself between Dain and the cabin and grabbed his face forcefully with both hands, making him look at her. Tears ran down her cheeks. “Stop fighting, you can’t help him with this.”

Again Dain struggled. “What’s happening! Who’s in there with him! Let me go!”

“Dain, the only ones in that cabin are Ed…and Luna,” she explained.

The words sapped the energy from Dain’s. He collapsed, his pack-mates switching from restraining him to catching him in an instant. They slowly lowered him to sit among the ruins of the table. “Wha…what do you mean Luna?” he whispered, fearful and reverent.

Marissa knelt in front of him, carefully placing her hands on his shoulders. Her tears continued to fall. “On the full moon, Luna came to Ed and made him Wolf-Blooded—made him part of the pack. She rewarded Ed for his loyalty and dedication to us, and to you. I am so sorry, I should have seen the signs. We could have prepared him…”

Dain’s voice sounded small, like a lost child. “What do we do?” he pleaded with his Keeper of the Ways.

“Nothing,” she sobbed, pulling him into a hug. “Luna’s gift must be earned. Ed will have to fight to survive it. And he must do it on his own.”


The sounds continued through the night, shifting between the screams of man and something more primal. Once allowed to move, Dain slumped against the cabin door and refused to leave. The moon sank across the horizon as dawn broke the next day. The cabin had fallen silent.

With Marissa and Leanna by his side, Dain entered the cabin. The door barely budged, and only after Dain’s shove did it push the debris clear enough for them to enter. The inside reeked of a foul mix of a kennel and locker room, both long-since cleaned.. Barely any furnishings were in any recognizable fashion. Walls had been broken down; shelves, counters, and tables had been smashed. And in the center, among a pile of bedding and Dain’s clothes, was Ed curled into a fetal position. Blood was smeared across him, and visible wounds stretched across his body. Only his whimpering confirmed that he still breathed.

“Ed…” Dain whispered meekly.

Ed struggled to raise his head. At first, there was no look of recognition in Ed’s wild eyes, and he looked poised to fight. But, just as quickly, it passed. “D–Dain?” he croaked. “Need…you.”

Ed tried to rise, but collapsed back into the heap just as quickly. Moans of agony escaped him. Instantly, Dain was at his side, checking his mate as best he could. Ed shoved away Dain’s hands, instead pulling him into a fierce hug before falling back unconscious, his breathing steady. Dain looked up, helpless but relieved.

Tension visibly lifted from Marissa. “Thank Luna,” she said. “He did it.”

Leanna approached warily, acutely aware of the air of a wild animal that still clung to Ed. She laid her hand against his back and closed her eyes. Ed stirred, but only enough to squeeze Dain tighter. He winced, fully aware of Ed’s hard-won physical changes. “He’s feverish,” she stated. “And badly malnourished. He needs to eat, and then to rest, peacefully. There’s also something else in there. A, uh, hunger. It’s not as strong as what you have, Dain, but it’s like what the rest of the Wolf-Blooded feel. It’s…settling down now, feelings of home are coming from it. There’s also…Oh.”

Leanna blushed. “We should go and get them some food,” she stammered, walking quickly for the door and pulling Marissa along with her.

Dain’s confused look changed to one of amusement as Ed rocked the two of them with his movement. “Are you really humping me in your sleep?” he laughed.


It took a few days for Ed to leave the cabin, and several more before being comfortable around others. Weeks later, a small group sat around the new picnic table out front enjoying dinner. The day had mostly consisting of repairing and rebuilding the cabin’s interior, something that Dain had done without complaint (and for which Ed had sheepishly apologized over and over).

Simon walked up mid-meal and slipped a note to Ed. All conversation stopped. Ed opened the note. A Union contact in New Orleans needed help.

“How did you get this?” Ed asked. “I thought you said the Secret Frequency went down a few months back.”

Simon shrugged. “It did. This came by plain ol’ email. Not secure at all. They must be really desperate.”

“Uh, thanks, Simon.” Ed mumbled. He could feel Dain’s gaze on him.

Later that night, after everyone had left, Ed sat outside next to the fire. In one hand he held the note; in the other, his pocket notebook with everyone’s contact information in the Contingent that he knew. A cellphone laid next to him, the flames flickering off of the black glass. Dain padded up and sat down next to him.

“When do you leave?” he asked, trying to hide the hurt in his voice.

Ed released the breath he was holding. “I don’t know,” he said.

“What do you mean you don’t know?” Dain responded, sharper than intended. “It’s not enough they take you away from here, but they can’t even tell you when to be there?!”

Ed turned back to the fire. “No, it’s not that. I don’t know if I’m going. I don’t know if I can go.”

Dain cocked his head, like the sound had somehow come in wrong. “Huh?”

Ed stood up and stepped closer to the fire, shivering. “I don’t know if I can do this anymore. Just pick up and go. It doesn’t feel right anymore. Leaving the farm, leaving you. I know they need me, but…”

Dain followed, wrapping Ed in his arms. “…but you feel sick about the idea of leaving.” he finished Ed’s thought. “Yeah, that happens to us, once you pick a pack. Or more accurately, once a pack picks you. You don’t want to leave them.”

“Does it get easier?” Ed asked.

Dain was quiet for a while. “No. No it doesn’t. You learn how to deal with the feeling, but it never gets easier to leave the pack.”

Ed nodded. The silence stretched out until Ed deliberately reached out and dropped both the note and his notebook into the fire. “What are you doing?!” Dain exclaimed, reaching past Ed to try to rescue the quickly igniting paper.

Ed stopped him. “Leave it. I’m done with that life. It nearly killed me. On several occasions. And it took me away from here when you needed me most. I don’t know if I could go on if something happened to the pack and I wasn’t here to fight for it. I have a real chance here to start something good, something I can be proud of. The Contingent needs to exist, but there’s no place in it for me any longer.”

Ed turned to walk away from the fire, away from his past. And, as the smoke curled into the crisp and clear night sky, vanishing into the Milky Way above, he felt truly at peace for the first moment in a very, very long time.

View
Telephone
Can call all you want but there's no one home...

A man and a woman, probably related, rounded the corner of an industrial hallway, decked in worn tactical vests and mismatched army surplus. Bullets sparked off of the pipes and plating around them, releasing steam in an ear-splitting hiss and obscuring their pursuers.

Reaching their destination, they ducked into a small room and slammed the heavy steel door behind them. Inside, a frazzled guy in work overalls had the cover off of a large mechanical… thing that took up much of the room. Loud beeping made thinking nearly impossible and an acrid smoke hung in the air.

“Jimmy, I hope you’ve got that thing figured out, we’re out of time!” the woman shouted, bracing the door with a piece of debris.

Jimmy was frozen in place, paralyzed by choice. In front of him, a Gordian knot of wiring connected several boards, tanks, and tubes in the device. He had a pair of clippers in one hand and an multi-meter in the other. “I, uh, no. I have no clue. But I think that beeping is bad.”

The other two exchanged a look. “What?!?” the male shouted. “The Patron’s goons are going to be through this door any minute!”

“That’s it, I’m calling Dr. Skaar.” the woman announced, sliding a smartphone from her hip-pocket.

Her brother stared at her incredulously. “Where the hell did you get Dr. Skaar’s number?”

She held out a finger, silencing him. “Shush! It’s ringing…”

She switched the phone to speaker mode. The deliberate baritone of Skaar’s voice filled the room.

“I don’t answer this unless it is Ed, Alex, or Natalie.”

Immediately following came the metallic drone of a standard text-to-voice system.

“Please leave your message after the tone.”

beep

“The user’s mailbox is full. Disconnecting.”

Shock and disbelief flooded the room, but the crash of a large metallic object into the steel door startled everyone back to action. A muffled digital roar came from the other side, along with the sound of shifting machinery and angle grinders activating. She dropped the phone and it shattered against the concrete floor.

While she scrambled to recover the broken pieces, the banging was replaced by the high-pitched wail of angle grinders against the steel door. “Jimmy make a god-damn decision!” the brother shouted, taking a shooter’s stance in front of the door, pistol drawn.

“If I cut the wrong wire, we’ll dump the charge and fry!” Jimmy yelled back, desperately trying to trace another wire through the jumble.

“If you don’t cut a wire, whatever’s on the other side of that door is chewing our faces off!” came the response.

Jimmy pulled a red and green wire from the rest. Placing it between his snips, he closed his eyes, and hoped for the right result, or at least a fast death.

View
Blackstar
Session 6 (Justin)

Flagstaff. The Black Star. We’ve seen the signs and read the dossiers. They assassinated Jackson Carver and framed it on us. They moved in to burn down the Farm in Denver and kill our allies. Someone or something there wishes to discredit and then kill us all. However, they’re biting off far more than they can chew. We’ve lost friends, loved ones, and our own innocence for the sake of others and yet we’re still here, fighting to save our world. We are the heroes of this story, and I refuse to let our legacy be tarnished. Let’s expose the monster behind this to the light of day and show that together, we’re unstoppable.

- Elijah Sharpe

Hunters

Eva Jimenez
Heinrich (Henry Scaggs) Shlykova
Josephine “Josie” Bennett
Mallory “Mal” Cunningham
Virgil Halfdollar
Wayne Hodges

Writeups

Doctor Mallory Cunningham – written by Mallory “Mal” Cunningham

View
Lazarus
Session 6 (Melissa)

We know there was a power structure behind Carver, an enigmatic Patron, pulling strings from the shadows with a cult of followers who are willing to die for their cause. The framed document we recovered from his house has given us our first actual leads. It appears to be some sort of contract. The vellum itself originates from an area in the Himalayan mountains, and what text we’ve been able to translate references the same things we’ve been seeing throughout our missions:

I offer the key that will unlock the true path. Let loose the chains that bind you and be reborn.

Several hunters have paid dearly to get us this far. I can not in good faith require anyone to go on this mission, so I’m asking for volunteers. Infiltrate the cult, find their leader, and get whatever information you can.

-Elijah Sharpe

Hunters

Mercedes “Mac” Gauron
Richard Miller
Miles Jaggens

View
I Can't Give Everything Away
Session 6 (Johnathan)

With Jackson Carver’s death, a number of his shadow-corps found themselves without funding. Most simply shut down – the employees just walked away when the paychecks stopped showing up. Unfortunately, if South Carolina taught us anything, it’s that there are any number of sites that need monitoring 24/7 for the good of us all.

One of those sites is just outside Las Vegas. Cloverleaf ran a lab here, but the gate’s been chained about a month now. We don’t have a lot of details, but we know they were synthesizing some sort of compound. Some notes reference oneirologic research. If the unicorn and the dullahan are any indication, this could be very bad.

There has been a rash of people falling into comas while sleeping in the Las Vegas area. But perhaps more terrifying are the mass hallucinations happening in the City of Lights. Or, they were assumed to be mass hallucinations until one of those hallucinations smashed a hole in the Golden Nugget.

Get to Las Vegas and fix whatever it is that Cloverleaf left behind.

- Elijah Sharpe

Hunters

Aaron Mathias
Charles Powell
Granger Simms
Tazendra “Taz” Crow
Winston Moss

Writeups

I’m Leavin – by Aaron Mathias

View
What A Fool Believes

Before the return flight from Rome, ASI had already directed Aaron to continue on to Denver and await another set of orders from headquarters. Luckily, he still had a place to stay there. Some good friends had seen to that decisively not too many days ago; he was anxious to hear that story from Eva and Charles.

Once the Rome team had extracted Gina, and Aaron and Natalie had reported the situation back to Elijah Sharpe, Elijah had sent a private jet to Italy to pick up Gina and bring her back to New Jersey. The plane had included a heavy security detail, replete with armed field agents in full riot gear, a few psychics from Gina’s own pool of contacts, and some archivists with arcane widgets that could detect and repel any extranormals who might try to interfere with her extraction. Aaron got the distinct impression that Gina was angry with him and the others for pulling her off the throne and out of the Vatican, but Natalie assured him that would pass the moment Gina got home and held her soon-to-be-born grandchild. He hoped so; Gina was one of his favorite people, and one of the last folks he ever wanted to be mad at him given her unique suite of talents.

When the Empire Foundation jet touched down in Denver, Aaron and Natalie picked up the cheapest rental car they could find on short notice and sent Simon notice that they were inbound. He sent a group of older kids from the caern to meet them on the edge of the bawn; the youngsters acted strangely when they drew near, circling Aaron warily and sniffing at him, as if unsure whether he was actually who he said he was. Aaron recognized one of them: a teenaged boy who was on the cusp of early manhood the last time he’d seen him, corralled in the center of the caern with the theurges when Carver’s mercenaries had attacked the Farm last year. And what a year a difference could make: the boy had added easily twenty pounds of muscle mass to his slight form, and he carried himself like a warrior. A brand on his chest marked him as one of Dain’s junior pack members.

Once they’d thoroughly assessed him and deemed him not to be a threat, the teens led them through the bawn and into the caern proper, to Simon’s cluttered cabin packed full of electronic surveillance equipment, satellite linkups for secure internet connections, and other technology far beyond Aaron’s basic understanding of computers. “Simon’s not in right now,” said the young garou, who was clearly the alpha of the hunting pack that had escorted them, “but this guy said he’d show you around and get you up to speed.” A brown leather chair in front of a broad spread of flatscreen monitors swiveled around to face them. In it sat Charles Powell, looking a bit more like his old self now that he’d let his hair grow back out and shaved the scraggly beard he’d grown to duck the authorities after the incident in New York a few months ago.

“Charles? Omigosh, how are you?!” Natalie dashed forward and threw her arms around the burly ex-cop, who barely managed to stand up in time to keep her from plowing the desk chair into the monitors. Charles grunted as she squeezed his midsection like a stuffed animal; she was strong for a small woman.

“Alive, which is pretty damn good these days,” he said jovially, turning to Aaron. “What’s up, Mathias? Enjoy your vacation in Rome? ‘Cuz we sure missed you here.” The sarcasm was laced with friendliness; Charles held out a hand. Aaron shook it, clapping Powell on the back in a quick man-hug.

“Sorry I couldn’t be here, man. We were halfway across Europe before word got out about the attack—and about Alex. And I was needed there.”

“Eh, don’t beat yourself up about it. Shit happens. Besides, we took care of it all. You two must be starving if you’ve had nothing but airline food since you left Italy. Chow line should be open; Granger’s on kitchen duty, and the man makes one hell of a good colcannon and corned beef casserole.”

“Granger’s here? I haven’t seen him since the museum in San Diego! Yay!” Natalie exclaimed. “It’s like home away from home, with booze and weed and a cafeteria!”

Charles quirked an eyebrow. “She always this cheery?”

“So far as I can tell,” Aaron said through a lop-sided grin. “It’s one of the perks of keeping her around.”

“It’s true—I’m a girl of many talents,” Natalie said with a devious, toothy smile, putting her arm around Aaron and nipping at his shoulder playfully. “You should be thankful, mister.”

The pair fell into a familiar routine over the next few days, one they’d not been accustomed to since their last visit to the Farm so long ago but which quickly returned, alternating days patrolling the bawn with the other hunters and the packs, digging latrines and patching up damaged structures, preparing food for the massive communal meals of garou and wolfkin, and watching the cubs while the other adults worked. It was simple living, and hard work, but the aches and pains of the days were easily soothed by baths in the cool rivers running through the caern, all sorts of homebrewed spirits, Leanna’s exquisite buds, and nights spent by the bonfires with good friends.

Nearly a week into their stay, Natalie had gone to attend to some cubs who needed supervision while their parents went on patrol. Aaron had intended to join her, but Taz told him he needed to come to Simon’s cabin right away—a message had arrived for his eyes only. He logged into his ASI email through the secure satellite link and and read through the message, which was encrypted and codelocked. His stomach lurched. So it’s finally time, he thought. And I have to go tell her, right now. He left the cabin and headed for the inner bawn, just north of the caern’s center and south of the main farmlands.

Aaron heard Natalie before he saw her. He followed her laughter to the tall tent of sunflowers the pack had grown as a playhouse for their pups. “Now you look like a real princess!” He heard a small voice proclaim. “True. I was but a mere peasant before with the face of a hag,” Natalie playfully replied. “You may have made me beautiful but you were not able to destroy my appetite for adorable children!”

The tall sunflower stalks began to shake and three children came screaming out of the opening in the front with huge grins on their faces. Natalie burst out after them barefoot and holding up the long skirt of her light blue cotton dress. She wore a crown made of woven flowers and a pretend snarl on her face. She snatched up the smallest child and began tickling her, then she looked up and saw Aaron. She blushed and set the laughing child down on the ground, “Go play without me, sweetie, I think Aaron needs to talk to me.”

Aaron dropped to one knee in an exaggerated fashion. “Run, little one, before she catches you again! I’ll hold her off!” He grabbed a stick from the well-trodden ground and held it at the ready in faux-fencer pose in front of him. The girl dashed off toward the camp in hysterics, shrieking in delight.

“Oh no! Not the handsome prince! I can’t resist his dashing good looks!” She covered her eyes in mock terror.

He stood up and dropped the stick in his right hand into a lazy downward guard, resting his left on his leg. “This game makes no sense. Are you a child-eating hag or a princess? You can’t be both, I’m pretty sure. Those are the rules. And around here, fairy tales could have a very different meaning depending on who you talk to. You might even be disparaging someone’s grandmother,” he said with a grin.

“Well from what I know of fairy tales, a curse that turned a princess into a child-
eating hag could only be broken by true love’s kiss.” She pressed her hands to her chest and fluttered her eyelashes in an attempt to look as much like a princess as possible.

“Uh huh,” he said, his smile growing wider. “I bet you say that to all the boys.” He dropped the stick and strode toward her, pulling her close and pressing his lips to hers, meaning to do so briefly but finding it harder to pull away than he’d intended. “Nat…sit down.” He gestured to the small chairs in the center of the sunflower tent.

Her eyes were closed, still under the spell of his kiss, but they quickly opened and her smile was replaced with a look of worry when she heard the tone in his voice. She followed him back into the canopy of the bright yellow flowers. “Babe, what is it?” she perched on the edge of the small table, facing Aaron.

Aaron settled into one of the low chairs and took her hand as she knelt to the ground to join him. “Several communications have just been issued to all Contingent affiliates. They come direct from Sharpe. I have to go into the field in a few weeks.” His eyes drifted downward to the surface of the plastic table in the center of the tent.

“What? No! We were going to take a break…be normal!” Her voice rose in a mixture of anger and sadness.

“I know, babe—believe me, you have no idea how much I want that.” His gaze returned to hers. “Look, Natalie, whatever we stopped from happening in Rome, it’s having repercussions. I couldn’t leave Gina on that throne; none of us could. But those fae were trying to seal something away by turning her into the oracle. Something powerful enough to worry them. And it came from a Cloverleaf facility in South Carolina.” His grip tightened on her hand. “Nat, there’s mass hysteria in Las Vegas. People are hallucinating, falling into comas.”

“There’s always mass hysteria in Vegas, it’s Sin City!” Natalie’s pathetic attempt at a joke did little to mask how upset she was. She was silent for a moment, then looked at him, tears rolling down her cheeks. “But why you? Why does it always have to be you? I can’t go this time. I can’t be there with you.”

A pensive look of calculation crossed his face. “Oh damn. I forgot. The show’s off hiatus soon.”

“Yeah. I have to work, babe. I’ve got rent and you know I send money home to help with Papa. I’ve stayed away longer than I should have. If I don’t report to the set I’ll be fired.” She pulled her hands away from him, reached up and slid the crown off of her head and into her lap. “It’s not fair. I shouldn’t have to choose…” she picked the white petals off of a daisy.

“Nat, you should go back to work. Honestly, you don’t need to be in on this mission. Cloverleaf is bad news, and they have a facility on the edge of the city. It’s been shut down, but SecFreq hackers pulled some files off their cloud infrastructure. They determined that Cloverleaf was researching oneiric agonist compounds at that lab. Dream drugs. And with everything we’ve seen lately—Gina’s spontaneous dream omens, the reports of hysteria in Nevada, Alex falling into that coma—Nat, it has to be connected. Sharpe wants me there; no one else has insight on these phenomena like I do, and Gina’s in no shape to go back in the field right now.” He moved behind her, his fingers stopping hers from tearing more petals.

Natalie stood up, pulling her hands away, the crown fell to the ground. Her left hand moved to her forehead and her right to her stomach. “I just can’t do this. It’s too much not knowing if you’re safe. I really thought we wouldn’t have to do this again. I feel nauseous! I have to get out of here!” She pushed through the green stems into the field outside, taking a deep breath.

She heard Aaron’s footsteps crunch dead grass and twigs behind her as he approached. “Nat, Sharpe sent out other orders. Not all of us know about them, but I was given access. There’s a team headed for the source of that contract your team retrieved in Dallas, and another one scheduled to hit the Air Force observatory in Flagstaff at the same time we carry out our orders in Vegas. Elijah’s got something planned. He’s been waiting for the dominos to line up, and this is our shot to knock them down and end this for good.” He laid a hand gently on her shoulder.

“I know. I know, in my head I know all this. But my heart? My heart is saying that I have to do normal alone, and right now that’s louder than any request Sharpe has.” She leaned her cheek against his hand, “I’m sorry, I know I’m being a brat right now, I just hate that I can’t go with you.” Her shoulders began to shake as she broke down in sobs.

Aaron’s arms encircled her from behind. “Nat, I’m so tired of this. So tired of everything being on the edge of a disaster. And I won’t lie to you and say I could walk away from what I do forever. I made that decision when I wished to control my dreams instead of getting rid of them. But if we finish this job, I can scale back. Elijah already offered to keep me on as an intelligence consultant—no field work. I think he’d accept my resignation if I handed it in today.” He moved to stand in front of her, placing a single finger under her chin. “But if I refused to do my part in all this, a part that maybe no one else can, then I’d be giving up the fight for the world we both want to live in together.”

“I know, it’s because you’re the dashing heroic prince.” She smiled weakly at him. “I just don’t know if I have it in me anymore. Maybe I am the child-eating hag.” She vainly attempted to wipe off the mascara that has started to run down her cheeks. “I need to get cleaned up. It’s almost dinner time.” She kissed his cheek and turned to walk towards their cabin.

Aaron watched her walk away into the dying light of the late afternoon sun, out of the fields of the bawn and into the wooded camp at the center of the caern. No, you’re definitely the princess, he thought. Which must make me the fool—because only a complete fucking idiot wouldn’t go with you.


After dinner, the various packs retreated to their own quarters of the caern, gathering around the many bonfires they’d lit. The chill of the night had not yet fully descended, but the temperature had dipped into the 70s after sunset and was sure to cool steadily as the evening passed. A first quarter moon hung heavy in the sky—a philodox moon, Simon had explained to Aaron, which the garou considered a time for reflecting on truths and decisive action.

Charles, Granger, and Taz had wandered off with Forseti, Leanna, Dain, and Ed to another part of the caern; evidently they’d been accepted into one of the other packs, which was only rational given their huge contributions to the defense of the caern in the preceding weeks. Nat and Aaron decided to fall back with the pack they knew best among the Denver wolves: the East Coast Exiles, who had dragged them and the other hunters into the caern last year while they’d been here investigating the VALKYRIE washouts on Carver’s payroll.

Drake and Marissa had spread out a blanket a few feet away from their pack’s firepit, taking turns at playing checkers with Promise. Keppler was perched on a tree stump in the shadow of a massive fir, just within reach of the light from the flickering flames, honing the edge of his claymore with a whetstone. Harms sat somewhat closer, less sullen than usual and almost jovial, thanks in no small part to a hearty meal and a massive after-dinner spliff of the Farm’s finest. A few other werewolves gathered around the fire pit, many holding either musical instruments or jugs of homebrewed ale and mead, and Drake led them in a series of songs on his loveworn acoustic guitar.

Eva had stalked over to the fire after the meal as well, pulling two frosty bottles of Forseti’s brown ale from a repurposed six-pack carton. She popped the top off one of the bottles and handed it to Mal, who was laying out a blanket for them near Drake and Marissa, then grabbed a second for herself. Aaron and Natalie had found a spot on a large boulder opposite the troupe of garou musicians, not too far away from Eva and Mal; Nat reclined against his chest, her hands clutching his tightly in her lap.

“It’s too easy to get used to this,” Eva said. “At first it was a shock being out here in the middle of nowhere after living in L.A. for so long, but this place grows on you.” She tipped back her beer bottle and swallowed with gusto, wrapping one arm around Mal’s shoulders.

“It’s a nice change from Manhattan,” Mal agreed, “but I miss my lab. I’ll be glad when things calm down and I can resume my research again.” She leaned over and kissed Eva on the cheek. “But at least I get to enjoy a getaway with you in the meantime, though.”

Natalie leaned back further, nuzzling Aaron’s cheek and neck; he buried his nose in her hair, savoring her scent and lightly kissing her neck. “I missed this place too,” she said. “I can’t believe it’s been over a year since we first met you guys!”

Marissa smiled. “I definitely enjoy the company a lot more when we don’t have to spend all our time fighting bastards with rifles and flamethrowers,” she joked.

“Not that there was much of a fight to be had this time,” Drake added between chord strums. “You Contingent folks helped us shut down that shitstorm before it started raining down on us. That’s two we owe you now.”

“Nah, we’re square,” Aaron said. “Simon keeps sending me weed, and no one complains when I ask to crash here for a week or two. I’m just sorry I wasn’t on hand to help out, too.”

“Meh, no worries man—you had your own hands full in Rome, from what I hear,” Drake said with a quick dismissive wave of his picking hand as he returned to playing the lead melody in the song the werewolf musicians were playing. “We’re good as far as I’m concerned.”

A few bottles of beer and passes of the mead jug later, Natalie slid out of Aaron’s lap and off the boulder. “I gotta pee—that mead’s running through me like wildfire. Anyone wanna come with?” Marissa and Mal stood and walked off with her toward the camp latrines, chattering the whole way there.

Aaron hopped off the rock and moved away from the fire, taking a minute to savor the cool air away from the flames. As he stepped into the shadows, a familiar voice intoned a greeting. “You don’t call, you don’t write—what, are you too good to even hit a guy up for a round of Heroes any more, Mathias?” Simon Davis stepped out from behind a tree and smirked.

“How the hell have you been, man?” Aaron hugged the smaller, wirier man, clapping a hand on his back. “I was afraid you’d be gone all month!”

“Nah, just had to run into town for a few days to upgrade the security systems on some of the dispensaries, pick up some parts, see some friends…you know the drill.” Simon nodded toward a torchlit path that led deeper into the woods, indicating Aaron should walk with him. “So what’s new with you, Mathias? I haven’t seen you in months. You look different. Smell different, too. The way you carry yourself, your expression…you’ve changed, kid.”

Aaron smiled ruefully and caught Simon up on the highlights of what had transpired since the last time he’d visited the caern. “So, now I’m going back into the field again…and Natalie’s upset. I can’t blame her, either. She wants us to be together and try to live a normal life worse than anything in the world. I can’t give her that right now. And if…if something happens to me, I know it’ll break her.” He stopped in his tracks and looked at Simon. “Did I mess up? Should I have quit, and just told the other hunters to go deal with this themselves? She must love me, because I can’t imagine any woman letting a man put her through what I’m doing to her right now.”

Simon regarded Aaron with a cold stare, unblinking. “Aaron, you’re making a lot of hard choices these days. I’m not gonna lie to you and tell you that they’re bound to get any easier. They’re not.” He stepped closer toward the younger man and inhaled deeply. “No one else here is saying it to your face, Mathias, because you’ve fought to defend us before, which makes you a friend and a guest—but we can all smell the scent of the wolf on you. I know what Sharpe’s doctors did to heal you when you got shot.”

Aaron’s eyes widened at that. What? Scent of the wolf? Does that mean they gave me…no. It couldn’t be. That’s not possible…is it?

Simon continued; if he had taken note of Aaron’s surprise, he didn’t show it. “So that means you have a part of us in you now. Got parts of lots of other things in there too, for that matter. You’re still human, but you’ve got so much shit mixed up inside you that you’re not entirely a part of this world anymore. You’ll never be normal, Mathias, even if you do settle down. You have to accept that, and so does she, or it’s going to drive you both insane.”

“So does that mean I can never give Natalie the life she wants? The one she deserves?” Aaron said, his throat swelling with sorrow as he choked back a wave of emotions.

“Fuck no, it doesn’t.” Simon laid a hand on Aaron’s shoulders. “Listen, kid, just because you have a purpose to fulfill doesn’t mean you can’t live and love. Hell, look at us. We’re a family here. Husbands, wives, lifelong friends, blood brothers, hunting partners…our struggle doesn’t define us. It doesn’t mean we can’t fall in love or enjoy each other’s company. And none of us can fight forever. Dain and Forseti aren’t getting any younger, and the more battle scars they pick up, the more I worry about them going back into the fray again. Everyone’s role changes. Maybe it’s time for yours to change, too.”

“So you do think I should have quit, then,” Aaron said.

Simon shook his head and crossed his arms, leaning back against a tree on the trail. “I didn’t say that. There’s still a job to be done, Mathias. And as much as I absolutely fucking hate to say it, I agree with Sharpe—you’re probably one of the best people to go check out this shit in Las Vegas.” He inclined his head. “You know our charge, Aaron. You feel it echo in your blood, too, because our blood is your blood now, for better or for worse. Hunt the evil beneath every moon. Track it into the darkness where it lairs. Kill its spawn wherever it breeds. Rage against it with your dying breath.” Simon looked up again and smiled. “But in the meantime, stop walking around in the woods with surly old dudes like me and go show that girl how much you love her…and remind yourself of it, too, so that you remember all the reasons you have to come back to her alive.” He turned and stepped off the trail, firing back one last piece of advice. “Everyone’s good for a song and a story, Mathias. Make yours epic, and then get home in one piece to tell it.” With that, Simon disappeared into the treeline. A few seconds later, some hundred feet away, Aaron spotted a lean, brown-furred canine shape on a moonlit hilltop; it howled up at the half-moon overhead before disappearing into the darkness.

Aaron sighed heavily, composed himself, and began to walk back toward the firepit. When he got there, he found Natalie seated on the blanket with Marissa, playing with Promise. Eva and Mal were lost in each other, nearly oblivious to what was going on around them; only their clothing prevented their behavior from being outright lewd by most standards, but then the caernfolk weren’t exactly what you’d call prudes. Aaron couldn’t help but laugh at them as he sat down next to Nat. Promise was beginning to nod off; Marissa gathered the young girl into her arms and stood up. “I’m gonna go put her to bed. Be back in a bit.”

A few of Drake’s musicians, well into their cups by then, also stumbled off from the fire in search of either privies or bedrolls. One of them thrust a beaten-up six-string into Aaron’s hands as he passed, slurring at him in an Irish brogue. “Keep this warm for me, would ye, friend? I’ll be wantin’ her back once I’ve had a right and proper piss.” He stumbled off into the woods.

Aaron smiled and began to strum at the strings, grimacing at the dissonant tones. He turned one of the tuning pegs, ratcheting up the ever-errant B-string a quarter tone or so until it sounded true. Natalie gazed at him in astonishment. “What the actual fuck, Mathias? I had no idea you even played guitar.”

He grinned. “What can I say? I’m full of surprises.” He fingered a chord and strummed again, nodding in satisfaction at the tuning. “My dad used to play in a funk band in college. Nothing serious, just frat house gigs and stuff like that. Anyway, he kept all of his guitars, so I messed around with them a lot growing up, and I learned the basics from watching and playing with him. I have a cheap one of my own stashed away somewhere in the apartment. I dig it out every now and then—usually only when I’m really drunk.”

Drake nodded and grinned wolfishly through his beard. “Best time to do it, if you ask me. Play us something, then. I’ll follow along.”

Mal and Eva ripped themselves away from each other to watch and listen. Aaron blushed, and began to move his hands across the strings. “It’s in F Major,” he said to Drake. As he launched into the chord progression, Drake matched his movements, adding solo fills and licks to flesh out the sound.

Natalie didn’t quite recognize the song at first, but then it came to her. His custom ringtone for my number. I’d only hear it when he’d ask me to call his phone if he lost it. We sang this song together so many times during hunts or on vacation, riding the highways. And then it came on the night I went to his apartment and turned on the music before he got home from work, right after he got out of the hospital…the night I realized how badly I needed him. The tempo was slower, the arrangement a series of drawn-out arpeggios and strums; Drake’s notes wove into Aaron’s chords beautifully, finding the sweet spots in the cadence and stretching them out. She closed her eyes and swayed along with the music, letting the wave of happy memories crash over her, leaving her euphoric. When Aaron and Drake finished, she hopped up and ran over to him. Moving the guitar out of the way, she placed herself in his lap. Grabbing his head with both her hands, she pulled him in for a kiss. The kiss went on much longer than their audience probably felt comfortable with.

Coming up for air, Natalie gasped, “Cabin…now!” Then she climbed off his lap, grabbed his hand, and led him back to their room for the night.

Marissa was just returning to the campfire as Natalie was dragging Aaron off. “Did I miss something?” she said, regarding Drake quizzically.

The shaggy-haired werewolf smiled and re-tuned his guitar. “You gotta love how music brings people together.”


Natalie opened her eyes as the early morning sunlight came in through the thin curtains hanging over the cabin’s only window. She stretched and looked over to see Aaron sound asleep on his back. She rolled over to rest her head on his chest, her hand absentmindedly caressing his chest and arm. Closing her eyes, she inhaled deeply. Her flight back to L.A. was later today, and she didn’t know when she’d get to wake up next to Aaron again. She tried to take in as much of the moment as she could—the feel of his skin, the warmth of his body next to hers, his scent—to file away for the upcoming nights when her bed would feel too big, too cold.

Too few minutes later, she felt his chest heave in a yawn; his eyes had opened. “Hey gorgeous,” he said huskily, coughing lightly; being on the farm didn’t help his usual suite of bad habits one bit. “Did we miss breakfast?”

“I don’t think so. I bet you’re starving between the farm’s specialty and the workout I gave you last night.” She rolled over, draping her arms on his chest and resting her chin on them so she could look at him. There were circles under her eyes that hinted at the restless night she’d had.

Aaron ran his hands down the smooth skin of her back, his fingers tracing the outline of the red and blue jellyfish on her shoulder almost instinctively. “It does keep my appetite going. At least the chores keep us in good shape, though.”

Natalie winced reached over to rub her bare shoulder, “Yeah, the chores. That’s one thing I won’t miss when I leave today. Eva said she’d drive me to the airport, I know you really need to start mission prep.”

He averted his eyes. “Guess so. I’ve got sword practice with Dain and Keppler right after breakfast…but after that, I think they’re gonna go easy on me so I can spend some time with you.” He kissed her, first on the forehead, then on the mouth. “Come on, let’s get some clothes on and fuel up. Harms showed me a really neat hiking trail the other day on patrol that I want us to check out before you go.” He slid sideways out of the bed, pulling on a pair of black nylon tac pants and heavy-duty boots and reaching for a t-shirt that had been catapulted onto the windowsill the night before.

Nat stretched out one more time, then slowly stood up. Walking towards the bathroom, she mumbled mid-yawn, “I’m gonna shower. Meet you at the dining hall?”

“Wait,” Aaron said. He pulled his shirt on and leaned down next to the bed, rummaging through his satchel and withdrawing a sealed envelope with her full legal name typed on it; the return address on the envelope was for ASI’s in-house legal counsel. He turned, a somber expression on his face. “Natalie, you need to hold on to this.”

She frowned and turned towards her bag that she’d tossed on a nearby chair. “I feel like this is a conversation I should be wearing clothes for.” After slipping on a purple linen sundress, she grabbed the envelope from his outstretched hand. “Aaron, what is this?” She held it in both of her hands as if it contained the weight of the world.

“Something I hope you never have to open. My will, signed and notarized. Dispensation instructions, and some additional requests, in case…things go bad in Las Vegas. You’re named as executor. A notarized copy is on file with ASI’s lawyers, but this is the original. I don’t trust anyone but you to have it.”

She raised an eyebrow. “What the actual fuck, Mathias? You’ve seen my apartment. I am the worst person to give something like this to.” She looked at him with a wavering smile. Her brown eyes glistened with tears she was willing not to fall. For the first time in her life she understood how her mom must have felt all those times her dad left for his shifts at the fire department. She silently prayed that she would never have to receive a call in the middle of the night about Aaron.

“I know, that’s why I’m doing it,” he said with a wry laugh. “If I started doing sensible, rational things now, people would know I’ve lost my fucking mind instead of just suspecting it. Gotta keep the pattern going so nothing goes astray, right?” His expression turned serious again. “Like I said: I don’t intend to ever let you open it. But, always have a backup plan. Mal got me thinking about it, actually; she said it’d be a good idea to get my affairs in order.” He couldn’t suppress a grin and a wide-eyed stare. “She also asked how I wanted to dispose of my remains in that eventuality; I don’t think she liked my answer very much.” He pulled her close, locking eyes with her. “It’s just a precaution. I plan on fighting like a hellhound to get out of there alive if I have to. And I’ve got a really solid team going in with me. We’ll watch out for each other.”

My dad was with his brother, cousin, and best friend, and he still had a building collapse on him. Natalie looked back down at the envelope, unable to fight the tears anymore. One by one they fell onto the envelope, spreading moisture across its surface. “Oh fuck!” She exclaimed and started frantically trying to dry it off on her dress. “See? I’m already screwing this up!”

He couldn’t help but laugh, even through his own tears. “I’m pretty sure it’s still legally binding. Look, Nat, I’m sorry to put a pall over our morning with this, but I had to…and you didn’t really give me the chance to do it yesterday. So, the needful is done. It’s over. Let’s just forget about it and enjoy our day.” He wiped the tears from her cheeks with the tail of his shirt and kissed her. “I love you. So, so much. One last mission, to end this thing once and for all. And then things change.”

Natalie hugged him back as tight as she could. The entire time he spoke, she couldn’t shake the feeling that even if he did make it back to her, this wouldn’t be his last mission.

View
Bigger than Big

Charles wiped his brow as he shrugged off the riot gear and stowed it back in its case. While great for stopping a bullet (and posing for pictures), the heavy gear was hot and stifling. He and Keith had finished taking inventory of the Valkyrie gear, and he needed a break. There had been a lot more to take note of than he had believed at first. Who would have thought that the caern getting attacked would have resulted in such a windfall of weapons and armor for the Union?

Charles walked out away from the center of the caern, out toward the woods, the fields, the greenhouses comprising what he had heard the werewolves refer to as “the bawn”. He sat down on a stump overlooking a small stream running through the meadow. The past few days had been a whirlwind of action and killing. Charles let out a deep breath he didn’t know he had been holding. Looking out over the green landscape, he felt at peace for the first time in days.

A heavy hand fell on Charles’ shoulder.

“Jesus Christ!” He leapt up, spinning around, and had his gun halfway cleared from his holster before recognizing the colossal figure in front of him. “Hey…. Big Man, right? Sorry about that, you startled me.” Charles holstered his pistol. How could something that big be that quiet? He held out his hand. “I’m Charles.”

The huge man took Charles hand in his own, enveloping it, and shook firmly. He pulled a small slate that was hanging around his neck over his head, and wrote for a moment. Forseti, actually.

“Ah, nice to meet you, Forseti. Sorry, that’s all I’ve ever heard you called.” S’okay.

Forseti handed Charles a bottle that was in his other hand. He lowered himself gently to the earth beside the stump, favoring his wounded leg. Charles sat back on the stump, finding that with the giant sitting on the ground they were still at relative eye level. He took a pull from the bottle as Forseti sipped his own. Cold, dark, sweet beer flowed down his throat. “Oh god that’s good… thanks, man.” He was rewarded with a huge thumbs up.

The two sat silently for a while, looking out over the landscape. Raised voices floated down from the center of the caern again. Charles recognized Eva’s voice, and the odd Spanish curse word.

“The hell’s going on up there?”

Eva’s mad at Ed. It’ll pass. Made questionable deal. She’s worried for him.

“Huh. Seems like we’re all mad about something or at someone these days. Everything’s going wrong… some of us are wanted, some of us are losing it…. Some of us are dead. We’ve all seen things no one is meant to see. I’d hoped we would start getting answers by now, but all I have is more questions.”

Charles took a long drink. “I think it’s starting to get to me. I’m just angry all the time these days… I wasn’t always. I’m starting to worry I’m going to take it out on one of the team. Sometimes they just don’t listen and I see red.”

Forseti grinned. I know a lot about rage.

“Yeah? What do you do?”

Find your center. Keep what’s important to you. Protect your pack. Correct them when they need it. The big man scribbled and erased, scribbled and erased. Laugh when you can. When all else fails, howl at the moon and go for the enemy’s throat.

Charles stared for a moment. “Huh.” He drained his beer. “Thanks for the advice. Want another beer?”

Please.

“All right, you wait here, Gigantor, I’ll be right back.”

View
Daddy Issues
Mal's memory-age 9

“That is an excellent diagram, Mallory.” said her science teacher, inspecting the drawing of a myofibril she was copying out of an anatomy textbook.

“Thank you,” she replied, not looking up from her drawing. “I am particularly interested in the conduction pathways of cardiac muscle, but I feel like an overall understanding of all three muscle types would be appropriate for this particular project.”

Her teacher’s smile faltered for a moment. “Well you’re doing a great job—keep it up,” she said before heading off to check on the next student.

Her concentration was broken a few minutes later by a loud bragging voice. “Yeah, I’m definitely going to win the dumb science fair. I’m building a robot.” A group of boys were sitting in a cluster of desks; the boastful speaker was a large blonde boy in the center.

She frowned as she sharpened her colored pencil. Zach wouldn’t know good science if he was hit him in the back of the head. He was a lazy bully, and it wouldn’t surprise her if his parents built his robot for him. But she knew that he would win anyway, because his project was something flashy that transcended a mere piece of posterboard. She would need to do better, but the question was how.


As she walked home, she was still considering that question. It would be really nice if I could get some slides of actual muscle tissue, she mused. And it wouldn’t just be for the project—I would love to see the difference between cardiac muscle and skeletal muscle firsthand. But where am I going to get the samples? She pondered this for a moment when the red awning of the butcher shop caught her eye. Without hesitation, she dashed across the street, ignoring the angry shout from the man in the car that almost hit her.

The door opened with a cheerful jingle of a bell, and she head toward the back of the store, grabbing a paper number from the red dispenser. She looked at the poster behind the counter that illustrated the different cuts of beef. A round cut would suit her needs best, and she spotted a piece of meat behind the glass labeled “round eye roast”. It wasn’t too large and mostly devoid of fat, which would make slicing it easier.
“Number 10!” She handed her slip of paper to the man behind the counter. He was an older gentleman, with a warm smile. “What can I get for you, young lady?”

“I want that steak there.” She pointed out the roast, and he wrapped it up in a piece of brown paper. “Anything else?” he asked, handing her the package.

“Yes, do you happen to have any beef hearts available? Oh, and kidneys as well.”

He eyed her critically for a moment. “Well now, that’s not normally something we keep behind the counter…but let me check for you.”

She bounced on the balls of her feet, while counting the money in her wallet. She had been saving up her allowance, but somehow this seemed more important. When he returned a few moments later, she could barely contain her excitement. She handed him the money and practically ran out of the store, trying to remember where her father kept his old microscope in the basement.


“Ouch!” As she tried to transfer the strip of beef onto the slide, the glass broke, and a shard was lodged in her thumb. Tears of frustration and pain welled in her eyes as she removed the glass, running her injured digit under cold water. She had spent the last two hours trying to slice the meat thin enough, but it wasn’t working. But she wasn’t going to give up; the prospect of actually seeing the single nucleus in the cardiac tissue was too exciting. Maybe I just need a different tool, she thought, as she watched the blood swirl with the water down the drain.

“What are you doing?” She spun around and saw her father standing in the doorway, taking in the sight of bloody ragged cuts of beef littering the countertop, some of it dripping onto the floor.

She turned off the water and dried her hands on a towel. “Science project.” She felt guilty; there was blood everywhere, and she waited for him to say something.

Her father wasn’t an angry man, but she still expected him to chide her for smearing blood all over the lens of his microscope. Please say something. She had gotten used to his indifference, as much as a nine-year-old could, but in this moment she needed something, anything, from him.

They continued to stare at each other and she could swear that she saw his expression soften, and hope blossomed in her chest. Maybe he can help me. “Dad, I…”

But the moment had passed, and he said “Clean this up before you go to bed.” He strode through the kitchen, avoiding the mess, and began to make himself a sandwich.

The tears finally began to fall and she bowed her head, shaking. She couldn’t explain it, but this project was important to her. She had never asked anything of him before, so would it hurt to try?

“Dad, I need your help. You’re a biologist, you know how to do this. Please help me.” Only she never said the words out loud, and by the time she looked up again, he was gone.


It was past midnight before she was finished cleaning up the kitchen. She practically dragged herself to the bathroom to get washed up and properly clean her wound. Her body was exhausted, but her mind was racing, thoughts of despair threatening to consume her. She had always just accepted he was gone most of the time, and when he was around he remained distant. But somehow this situation had broken down a wall inside of her, and she started putting words to the emotions she didn’t realize she had. What have I done wrong? Have I disappointed him in some way? A sob escaped her as she voiced the most painful question of all. What can I do to make him love me?

She sobbed for a few more minutes, but slowly she was able to pull herself together. She blew her nose, and as she was doing so caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. Suddenly a memory overtook her—one that up until now had confused her.


It was of the last time they had gone to church, about four years ago. It was Easter Sunday, and the pews were full to capacity with people like them, who only attended twice a year out of obligation. Her father told her to find a seat, and she slid in next to two women who were chatting amiably to each other. “Good morning,” she said politely, smoothing out the skirt of her dress.

“Good morning to you too!” said one of the women, smiling at her. “I’m Agnes, what’s your name?”

“I’m Mallory.” she mumbled, looking at her feet. At the time she couldn’t explain why, but all of this attention made her nervous.

“That’s a very pretty name. Are your parents going to join you?”

She didn’t get a chance to answer before Agnes exclaimed, “Wait a moment, you’re Jane’s daughter, aren’t you?”

Mal turned and stared at her, eyes wide. “You knew my mom?”

“Of course! Lovely woman, God rest her soul. She volunteered at the food pantry at the church for many years. But oh my goodness, look at you—you look just like her!”

She didn’t know what to say to that; she barely remembered her motherand , they never talked about her at home. She was about to ask, “What else can you tell me about her?” but her father grabbed her arm, painfully dragging her to her feet. “We’re leaving. Now.”

She struggled to keep up as they walked out of the sanctuary, waving sadly to Agnes as they left.


Mal opened her eyes, and suddenly she realized the truth. She finally understood the reason why he wouldn’t look at her, why he barely acknowledged her at all. It’s not my fault that he can’t move on. That’s his problem, not mine. I can’t help it if I look like her. I can’t change my biology—it’s not my fault.

On the heels of this realization came another set of thoughts. Thoughts that would ultimately shape who she would become. I don’t need his approval. Why should I feel bad about myself if he doesn’t care? I am better than this. I’ve always taken care of myself, and will continue to do so. I don’t need anyone, and I certainly don’t need him.

This was the first time that she would rationalize her feelings away, but it wouldn’t be the last. She wiped her eyes and straightened up, her resolve strengthening within her. She pulled open one of the drawers under the sink, searching for the antibiotic ointment. She didn’t find it, but instead, she found something so much better. A grin spread across her face as she pulled out a package of single-blade disposable razors.

I don’t need you, she reaffirmed before dashing down the stairs to retrieve the meat from the trashcan.

View
Road Trippin'
Taz leaves Seattle and heads to The Farm

“Mija, tienes que prestar atención. ¡No sueñes cuando estás conduciendo!”

Taz had no idea what Eva had been saying, of course, but she got it. Pay attention. No mental wandering off. It was surprisingly easy, in a way. Driving seemed to put her in a meditative state similar to tinkering with gadgets; the choreography between pedals and gearshift, wheel and road flowed smoothly. You almost could believe she’d done this before.

A burst of ruby bloomed across the muscle car’s windshield as another mosquito grown fat on cattles’ blood met a high-speed end. The Wyoming wind and sun crystallized it into a disturbingly beautiful pattern and Taz winced slightly at the growing collection in her view. She’d have to stop at a gas station to scrub them off soon, or she’d start creating dangerous constellations in their arrangements. At least the sun was out again. The sudden thunderstorm that rolled into Cheyenne last night had driven Taz from her starlit perch atop a rocky outcropping and into the back seat of the Camaro, hidden from nosey travelers behind and under a convenient stone ledge. Vaguely remembering countless other nights without shelter, Taz had breathed a word of thanks to Mike for the gift of this tremendous machine before dropping into sleep as the storm raged overhead.

She had awoken to a landscape swept clean and refreshed. Even the air had a feel of pleasant anticipation, full of green and hopeful scents, and Taz basked in it. Today she’d finally get to see The Farm. The words formed in her mind in bold letters. She wasn’t even sure what The Farm was, but from the various descriptions Granger, Ed, Eva, and others had shared, it sounded wondrous. The sphinx would be there! Maybe! And werewolves! She’d never met a werewolf. At least, she thought she hadn’t. Had she? No, those were vampires. Peaceful New Hampshire vampires. A smile ghosted across her lips, then faded. Peaceful, except for one.

Vampire Jack with his gleaming white fangs. She was bleeding, crawling over the asphalt toward him, lighting a Molotov cocktail she’d cobbled together with gasoline and her own clothes in a desperate bid to destroy him. He’d gotten away, though, and Chester had died.

“Taz, be careful! You’re going to hurt someone!”

Taz’s hands spasmed on the wheel for just a second. Whose voice was that? It sounded familiar. The memory was fading, though, and the brown wooden sign alongside Interstate 25 welcomed her into “Colorful Colorado!” A thought from the previous night resurfaced and Taz scrambled to catch it. Tremendous machine…where did I…oh! She patted the dashboard of the ’79 Camaro as she christened it with a new name: Secretariat. A tumbleweed skittered across the highway; she dodged it smoothly, the corners of her mouth lifting as she recognized a sense of kinship with the gnarled, wandering plant. She had tumbled her way across the world for years. But not now.

“So you can consider this place a home if you want. I want to set up Granger’s Own as a safe place that the more transient folk in the Contingent can use. A sort of ‘stay as long as you like and just chip in around the garage while you’re here’ kind of thing. Besides, it’s fun having people around that get you…”

So this is what it feels like to have a direction. Not only a direction, but the ability to follow it, and people to remind you where to go when you get lost. The lessons with Eva and Granger on the old dirt track in South Carolina were a blur of laughter, Spanish, and hardcore defensive driving instruction. Poor Eva had her hands full trying to keep the two crafting lunatics from modifying the Camaro while in the act of driving it, threatening them with cocotazos – painful knocks on the head – if they didn’t “stop fucking around and pay attention to the fucking road, por Díos!” Their protests that this was field training for the next time a fae demon ripped the steering wheel off mid-chase earned them less leeway than they thought they deserved. Moonshine and campfires next to the track afterwards led to drunken stories and even more drunken songs. Good moments. Don’t forget them.

Do not forget them.

Taz downshifted as she came up on more road construction, wrinkling her nose in anticipation of the heavy odor of concrete millings; since she’d dropped off Virgil Halfdollar at the train depot in Oregon, she’d seen dozens of crews working to repair the damage from the previous winter before the next one could arrive. She hoped for Virgil’s sake that the railroad tracks were being equally restored. They’d shared a companionable drive down from Seattle, quietly going over the strange events at Alex’s grandfather’s house, mourning the deaths of those who never made it out of that altered world, speculating on Alex’s challenges going forward, if ASI ever figures out how to get her out of that coma. Nothing was clear about that mission to her, and Taz wanted to kick herself for not searching out more answers to the Promethean’s bizarre actions while she had the chance. Even the creature’s smell had mimicked Alex’s, which was a lesson Taz anxiously tried to pin in her mind: don’t trust your senses too much in alternative realities. Granted, a seven-horned demon chasing you through a deadly glass maze does put the drive for research on the backburner. But still…it seemed like there was a logical pattern underneath it all. The dark side of Alex, made physical. To destroy? To embrace?

To remember?

Alex’s dark side had fangs. Gleaming white fangs in a jar of oily black fluid.

Gleaming white teeth smiling down at her. The smell of oil and metal. “Excellent work, Miss Crow!”

A shadow seemed to cross over Taz’s eyes, and she gripped the wheel again, shaking her head violently for just a second. Everything’s fine. We got Alex back, we took down a murderous blood ritualist, and created new allies for the Contingent among the Ashbury…something-something…people. That radiation from beyond Pluto seems to be popping up more and more often. She briefly regretted using this latest bit to explode the Promethean, but consoled herself with the hope that this new status…something…with Empire might give her a chance to recreate her beloved Flashy Thing. They’d sent her a drone with new instructions on what she can access, and it was all very confusing and exciting.

The Union had also sent her a message: something about a mentor? Mentors are good; she wondered what the mentoring was for. She’d picked Ed because she liked the surly ranger and she was pretty sure she’d met him a few times. Nobody else’s names looked familiar, but she guessed she’d find out if she knew them when she arrived at The Farm.

Red Hot Chili Peppers came on the radio, the perfect song for a perfect day. Finally past the roadwork signs, Taz hit the gas and cruised southward, every mile bringing her closer to her friends.

“Let’s go get lost anywhere in the USA.”

View
Where do you want to go?

“Yeah? Okay, you got them then? Good. Yes I’m sure I want to do this. Thanks.” Josie stood at the doorway, watching Wayne as he sat on the porch talking on his cellphone. She wasn’t sure who he was talking to lately, but she knew he was up to something. A few times he had been talking to different people from the contingent, at other times, she couldn’t figure out who was on the other line. The day before she had overheard an argument between him and Becky-Sue, who worked in the garage Wayne owned. It was unusual for him to keep a secret like this, and it had been slowly eating away at her. Something had changed for Wayne, but it was a complete mystery to Josie. He had shared only a few details from his trip to Seattle, where he had gone to save Alex, and it seemed as though his opinion on the Contingent wasn’t the same as it had been. He seemed determined to stay, as though it was his duty.

“What was that about?” She asked, walking out of the cabin, coffee in hand. She smiled to him, sitting down beside him, bumping his knee with one of hers in a playful gesture.

“That’s was my lawyer, the sale went through.” He said with a smile as he tucked a strand of her hair behind her ear.

“What sale?” She asked raising an eyebrow, setting her mug on the floor beside her..

“I sold the business.” He replied flatly, as if it was like selling some old baseball cards.

“You what?” She leaned forward, raising her voice slightly. His business was not only his livelihood, but his passion. “What the shit Wayne. Why? Why would you go and do that?” He could only stare at her, bewildered.

“Because, I wanted to?” He seemed very surprised by her reaction. She leaned back in her chair with a deep sigh.

“You made that business what it was, build it up from nothing. And you just…you sold it?”

He realized she wasn’t going to let this go. “Josie, I didn’t want it anymore. After Dallas, after seeing the pictures taken of me eating lunch, of you sleeping—the garage, my house, they will never be home again. The thought of going back there makes me sick.” She shifted in her seat, feeling slightly nervous by her boyfriend’s actions.

“Well, what will you do now?” She tried to keep her voice steady as she turned to look at him once more.

“I’m not tied to anything now, I can go—we can go anywhere we want. Of course things don’t change completely. I’d imagine we are going to continue to help the contingent. They are going to need the help—now more than ever.” He trailed off for a moment. “But that doesn’t mean that we can’t enjoy our time together, and go where we want, does it? Tell me, where would you like to go?” Josie grabbed his hands with hers, determination in her eyes.

“Flagstaff.”

View

I'm sorry, but we no longer support this web browser. Please upgrade your browser or install Chrome or Firefox to enjoy the full functionality of this site.