The temperature was dropping fast. The night was cold, and the snow had begun to fall in the slow, heavy way that threatened to pile up quickly and render the countryside impassable in only a matter of hours. It made their movement to the site Harrison had given them slow and uncomfortable, but it also concealed their movements. After a slog that brought Edmund and Stephen within rifle range, they found themselves picking their way through the edge of a copse.
Enough snow had fallen to muffle their steps, and as Rafe had told them, within a hundred yards they could see the light of the lantern Graves had hung to gather his men. They found shelter against an ancient oak and crouched down, hoping to meld into the trunk as they heard the approach of the rest of the pack.
While Edmund and Stephen waited low to the ground, Rafe and Stian found perches near to the meeting site. They had a good look at Graves, tall and thin and pale, as he waited under the lantern he had hung. The pack assembled quickly, some coming already changed and some coming on two legs, shifting to four once they had joined their confederates. Soon, there were a dozen wolves standing in a circle around Graves. He faced north, raised his arms, and began chanting.
Rafe couldn’t follow the language of the chant; he couldn’t even identify the tongue, although it had the sound of German around the consonants and a fluid lilt around the edges. Then Graves reached a break in the chant and bent, opening a wooden crate. He lifted up a long, curving horn.
Rafe had been expecting something out of brass, or maybe even a literal horn as he’d seen in the Holy Land. But what Graves brought forth was far, far stranger. It was enormous, long and spiraling and curving, a massive, coiling helix that a man’s hand barely fit around at its most narrow point. He couldn’t make out the carving on it, but he could feel it, even from here. Stian began swearing extensively under his breath.
“That…,” Stian said. “That is not something we can allow to remain loose.”
Rafe nodded. “You do your bit. I’ll be back.” He shimmied down the tree, not trusting the snow to muffle his fall from any height. Graves began chanting again and he inched as close as he dared.
A moment later a bright halo appeared above Graves, illumining him from above. The man paused his chanting and stared at the glow with a look that Rafe thought might be wonder. This was the replaced by a kind of eager satisfaction as he took the light for evidence that the ritual was working.
The smug look froze at the same moment Rafe heard a sharp crack.
No one moved, at first. The sound was so unexpected and the snow muffled the echoes from the rifle to such an extent that no one recognized it. Then Graves’ face slowly went slack and he dropped to his knees, then over into the snow.
If Rafe hadn’t been so terrified he would have found it hilarious. The wolves stared at Graves’ prone form for a moment, then looked at each other, an unmistakably human expression on a dozen canid faces. Four of them approached the body to investigate. A fifth (Harrison, Rafe supposed) slunk off into the darkness. Seeing that Graves was dead, the Alphas began to circle each other, snarling and snapping. The circle tightened as they all drew in, and Rafe saw the horn lying outside of it. He crept closer, not even daring to breathe.
He should have known, really. It had all gone too well. It was just too simple. One shot, their man was down, all he had to do was grab that horn and make it back to the manor.
Later, he never could suss out exactly what had happened. He didn’t think he had made a sound, but maybe he was wrong. Maybe it was a sudden shift of wind that brought his scent to those wolves who were only watching the unfolding conflict. Maybe there was some magic left in the torcs that alerted them when he got too close. All he knew was that one moment he had the horn within reach, and the next he was suddenly staring down a dozen snarling wolves.
He heard Stian crashing through the underbrush behind him. He also knew there was no way he would get there in time. After only a split-second’s hesitation, he reached down and grabbed the horn. It was even heavier than it looked, he mused, as he hefted it up to his lips.
“You wanted a Hunt, you’ve got one,” he said, his lips turning up in a teeth baring grin that was half smirk and half snarl.
“RAFE, NO!” he heard Stian bellow.
But it was too late.
This is what real power feels like, he thought, feeling it surge through him. God, no wonder so many of the bastards are insane. It felt like he had fire and lightning in his veins. It felt like he had drunk a barrel of wine and only started. He took a deep breath, and blew. The blast was long and deep, and echoed down to his bones. There was a moment of absolute silence, and then the wind began to pick up. It whistled high up in the trees, and carried with it the echoes of far off baying. The hair stood up on his arms, and he started to laugh.
“Fucked now, aren’t you? Best run, pups.”
The wind continued to rise, and the snow turned into sleet, hard, driving pellets that stung the skin. One of the wolves began to whine, dancing nervously. Then there was an answering horn call, and the distant sound of hooves. Another round of baying, much closer this time. Even the Alphas had noticed now, and after sniffing the wind they turned and ran.
Stian reached him now. “They’re not the only ones. What in the Seven Hells is wrong with you?”
Rafe was laughing hysterically now, bending over and gasping for breath.
Stian groaned. “Oh for… run, you ass.” He grabbed Rafe by the collar and shoved him as another horn blast sounded, this time much closer. That seemed to get Rafe’s attention, and they ran out of the treeline and back into the open ground.
It was quickly obvious they would never make it to safety on foot. Stian stopped up short on the plain. “Knife!” he yelled, holding out his hand. Rafe fished one out of his belt and handed it to him, and Stian began cutting a rough rectangle into the snowy ground.
“Seriously, how did you survive this long being just this fucking stupid? Were there only enough brains for three in your family, or did the others just portion out your share?”
His ire only made Rafe laugh harder.
“I swear to Christ if I die out here I will make your afterlife hell,” Stian said. “And I can do it.”
The wind’s blasts were almost overwhelming now, drowning out all sound except for the howling and baying of the approaching Hunt. Stian grabbed a handful of turf, and Opened the makeshift door. He grabbed Rafe, and threw them both through the opening. They landed in a heap of the floor of Stian’s room. Clods of dirt and snow rained down around them.
“Get off me, you idiot,” Stian groaned, clutching at ribs bruised in the fall.
Rolling over, Rafe laughed again. ”I’ve heard that before.”