The Huntsmen: Chapter 4

Rafe had been away when Charlotte died.

At some point during the wedding preparations, he noticed the way his future sister-in-law looked at him, and then at her ward, Amelia, and smiled to herself. He knew the signs of a woman plotting. And he knew to get out of the way quickly.

Rafe liked Amelia. He liked her a lot. After a few drinks, or in a particular mood, he would admit that he could even love her. But it would be disastrous, for both of them, for more reasons that he could count. So he judged it a good time to explore Prague and points beyond.

He made it home just in time for the funeral.

It was during the wake that he met Casmin, who had escorted Stephen home from University. It was at the same time that Rafe realized that Charlotte’s death had been the result of distinctly unnatural causes.

He knew the smell of magic, a literal perception somewhere between sulfur and cinnamon, and, this time, overlaid with a putrescent odor that made him gag.

No one else noticed. He concealed his own reaction as quickly as he could, but not before Stephen’s professor noticed.

They found each other later outside the parlor. “You know what this is,” Casmin said.

“Yes,” Rafe answered, his eyes restlessly scanning around him. He knew it, and he had come unarmed, and the spot between his shoulder blades was twitching with it.

“We need to examine the body,” Casmin said.

“I’ll take care of it,” Rafe answered, and he had. The right undermaid was distracted, the staff were already off balance and more than willing to take the night off at his suggestion, and Charlotte’s sudden death of an unknown illness meant that none of the guests lingered.

That didn’t help his unease when he opened the side door and let Casmin and his younger brother in.

“You brought Stephen?” he hissed.

“”He’s got to start somewhere,” Casmin answered cryptically.

It had only taken him five minutes to find what he was looking for: a mark, like a blue-black brand, beneath her hair on the back of her neck.

“What does it mean?” Stephen asked.

Casmin shook his head slowly. “I don’t know.”

Rafe tried to shake off the memory as Casmin led them to an alley less than a mile away. The entrance was guarded by a single patrolman. “Perfect timing, Professor,” he said in a thick Cockney. “Detectives just left, meat wagon will be here soon.”

“Thank you,” Casmin replied, slipping the man a coin before leading the three brothers into the crime scene.

There were two bodies lying in the shadows. One was – well, had been – fully clothed. Much of it was bloodied and shredded now. He lay on his back, staring at the sky. He had been a middle aged man, heavy and muscular. His shoes were of decent quality but worn almost to the point of destruction, and the fabric of his remaining clothing was rough but well mended. He had several major wounds, but the final cause of death was obvious: his throat had been completely torn out.

The other body was naked, and lay on one side, curled like a sleeping child. He was painfully thin and though he looked no older than fourteen, his size and obvious malnutrition made it difficult to be certain. There was blood on his mouth, but the only wound was a bullet hole in the side of his chest.

The men eyed the scene silently for a moment, adjusting to the horror. Finally, Casmin said, “Right then,” and went to kneel next to the older man’s corpse. He looked him over a moment, then said, “Stephen, help me turn him.”

Stephen turned an even brighter shade of green and gulped, but did as he was asked. The backs of the man’s thighs were like mincemeat, torn and shredded. Stephen gagged, and Casmin’s jaw muscles flexed as he fought the instinct to do the same. “All right, set him down.”

“What could do this?” Edmund asked. His voice was low and tight.

“You hunt,” Casmin said. Gesturing at the man’s legs he said, “What takes down an animal like this?”

“Dogs?” Edmund said. “But…”

“Not dogs,” said a voice from the shadows. “Wolves.” The voice was soon matched to a form as the shadows seemed to coalesce into the duke.

They all gaped, but it was Casmin who said, “What the hell are you doing here, Stian?”

Mogen grinned, an expression so unlike what they had seen of him so far that it was perhaps the most unreal part of his sudden appearance.

“I heard there was an historical emergency.”

“Difficulty,” said Stephen, shifting his feet. “I said difficulty.”

Rafe punched Stephen in the shoulder. “I told you that was stupid.”

Casmin looked from them back to the duke. “You’ve met?”

“At the ball,” Rafe said.

“You went to a ball?” Casmin asked, somehow finding that the most ridiculous part of the equation.

“Can we return to the matter at hand?” Edmund said, giving his most Jovian scowl.

Mogen nodded and said, “He was hamstrung, then brought down by the arms before they tore out his throat.”

“They? There’s more than one?” Edmund asked.

“That throat wound is an instant kill,” Rafe said. “He couldn’t have gotten off more than one shot. That killed the boy here, so someone had to finish him off.”

Casmin said, “A dog pack wouldn’t have run off. And I think they’d be noticed.”

Edmund looked at the duke. “You said wolves.”

Mogen nodded. “Of a kind.”

Edmund started shaking his head. “Please tell me you’re not saying what I think you’re saying.” Edmund looked deeply uneasy.

“Werewolves?” Rafe asked a touch incredulously.

“Looks like,” Casmin said.

Rafe shook his head. “I’ve heard stories, but…”

“So have I,” Casmin replied. “But never in the middle of a city.”

“Too young to be a shapeshifter,” Mogen said, frowning over the boy’s corpse.

“Are you sure?” Casmin asked.

The duke nodded. “Shape shifting takes… many years of training.” He knelt down, pulled down the boy’s eyelids and looked at the eyes.

He waved Stephen over. ““You see this? Blue. There are three ways to gain the ability to change your form.” His voice was low and serious now, and his accent more clipped. “You can gain it through study and ritual, but it takes years. Then there are bloodline families, who are born with the ability. They’re the most likely to run in packs, but they live out in the wilds whenever possible. And he’s not one of them.”

“Because his eyes are blue?” Stephen asked.

“Almost certainly. Born wolves almost always have golden eyes. Yet another reason they don’t come to town often. He also doesn’t smell right, but you’d have no way to know that. Which leaves the third possibility.”

“Which is?”

“A curse,” Casmin answered. “It’s a form of possession, actually. Frowned upon by shapeshifters and mages alike.”

“Why is that?” Edmund asked, fascinated, although against his better judgment.

“Because in any possession the spirit fights with that of the body it possesses for dominance. Usually the wolf-demon wins, and things get… interesting,” Stian said, grimacing. “But I’ve never heard of the cursed traveling in packs, either. Not in my lifetime, anyways . And then there’s this,” he added, gesturing at the boy’s body. “They just… left him here. Abandoned him, like a piece of meat. And he’s barely more than a child.” He gritted his teeth, and growled deep in his throat. “Fetch,” he barked. For a moment, Stephen thought he was talking to him, and wondered what he was meant to get. But then there was a slight popping sound, and a small, blue-grey figure appeared on the duke’s shoulders. It was perhaps 18 inches tall and vaguely man-shaped, excepting a tail, long curved claws, and a set of ram’s horns on its head. Mogen spoke to it softly in a language Stephen couldn’t understand, and it leapt down onto the boy’s body. It looked over it, carefully.

The imp had paused over the boy’s right shoulder, and was sniffing. It held its hands over a patch of skin, and uttered a single syllable. When he did, a sign blazed a bright gold for a moment before settling to black. An Enochian symbol, like a tilted “L” with a crosshatch and an extra leg on the lower bar.

They had seen it before, branded into the back of Charlotte Claire’s neck.

“Son of a syphilitic whore,” Mogen swore.

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