Blood Moon

Chapter 20: Wolf Coat

Under the sonata of nocturnal jungle sounds, Rick crashed through the brush after the albino lycanthrope. The White Wolf would have vanished into the dense jungle if Rick had not so keenly followed its scent. Unnatural hatred and obsessive curiosity fueled the pursuit of his quarry. Rick felt the desire to prove himself greater than his pursued adversary oozing from every pore on his body, as if overflowing from the very core of his being. Instinct compelled him to let out several short, sharp howls as if heralding to the world know he closing in on his prey.

His high adrenaline blunted the effects of exhaustion, but it was not fatigue that terminated his dead sprint. Rick halted in front of a rocky outcropping of a rising hill, sensing something was amiss. He immediately realized that his opponent had not fled in fear, but merely led him to a battleground that might prove decisive. It was then the terrible majesty of the hillside struck him. It rose from the jungle like a blasted spire of jagged rocks and features that twisted as if in agony like an infernal engine risen to the surface. Upon an angled boulder above him, Rick caught a hint of the White Wolf's musk. As he searched for an enemy, a shadow passed in front of the muted moonlight.

Rick dove out of the way without thinking as the White Wolf pounced upon the patch of ground he had occupied a moment earlier. Rick ran low as he approached, mimicking a venomous serpent instead of a haughty wolf. He snapped at his enemy's side, only to be blocked by the massive claws that had nearly killed him earlier. One of them found their way into his own chest, and reopened an old wound that Rick had hoped stayed closed. Upon the predator's face, Rick could see features he momentarily interpreted as reluctance.

Seizing the chance, Rick bounded forwards again, delivering a blow as he mimicked a trained fighter's stance. He buffeted the White Wolf's torso, sending him reeling back for a few glorious moments. With movements instructed to him by the Shaolin wolf, Rick ended his combination with a powerful thrust kick to the torso. The White Wolf pivoted out of the way, shoving Rick away as he disengaged from the exchange of blows. Despite the adrenaline racing through his system, he could feel his arms sore from the strikes he had landed.

Rick followed closely behind his prey as antediluvian instincts propelled him after his target. The White Wolf ricocheted between two parallel slabs of stone, pushing off with each foot as he ascended like a lupine angel. Rick bounded right after him, remembering how Ulfur had once navigated the treacherous cliffs of a Scandinavian fjord. The northern wolf's own memories helped him navigate through the perilous, uneven hillside. A single misstep could send him plummeting to a painful end in the valley below, but he barreled onwards almost heedless of the danger.

The White Wolf came to a stop in a narrow passageway between the rocks, and Rick rapidly closed the remaining distance behind them. The miasmic humidity and perspiration clung to his mangy fur as he prepared to finally defeat his foe. While alarmed by the sudden cessation of his sprint, the lure of an easy victory overtook him as his powerful legs pounded the stony earth beneath them. His arms terminated in talons eager to soak themselves in blood, an urge that would be sated in a matter of mere instants. As the White Wolf refused to move, Rick raised his claws for the final strike.

As soon as the White Wolf pivoted, Rick immediately cursed himself for succumbing to such a simple ruse. The deception ended as the albino lycanthrope's hips pivoted around with talons behind them. One formed into fist at the last moment, the uppercut striking Rick in the midsection and sending him flying backwards on the ground. For a moment, Rick laid there waiting for the jaws and razor-sharp claws of the White Wolf to descend upon him and signify his end. Instead, he recalled the persistence of his original forebear and sprung back to his feet.

Rick saw the White Wolf climbing a small mound that topped the hill. Realizing there was nowhere for his prey to go, Rick approached at a brisk yet cautious pace. He briefly considered all manner of traps or unpleasant surprises could be in store for him. While he considered some sort of landslide or rock-fall might alter the ground beneath him, his ancestral memories reassured him that the narrow distance between the White Wolf and himself was secure to stand upon. Off in the distance, he thought he saw a familiar landmark illuminated deep in the jungle.

Without further hesitation, Rick closed the final gap between himself and the White Wolf as his heart pounded like a signal drum. Somewhere down below, he could smell reassuring scents on the wind, but the final confrontation would be his alone. For a moment, he did not feel as though winning or losing mattered, but instead being able to endure everything that he had experienced had been a transcendent experience in its own right. He felt as though he wore the killer instincts of the wolf like a coat, one that now filled every fiber of his being. He was one with the predator within.

Rick stepped onto the tight hillock, and met the White Wolf in glorious combat. He dispelled all conscious thought from his mind as he struck out at the enemy. The White Wolf returned his initially barrage of strikes with a deep bite on his arm, but Rick paid it little heed. His quarry fought like a cornered beast, and Rick had no choice but to unveil the extent of his fury. His became uncertain of where all his limbs went, such was the madness of his berserker rage. The feeling of inevitable triumph and invincibility reigned as he saw the White Wolf stagger and buckle beneath his blows. Part of him wondered why the battered form now sprawled upon the ground had bested him so thoroughly.

A split second later, Rick's overwhelming sense of triumph immediately turned to regret as the wolf reverted to human form. Its wounds were severe, but they mended as its physiology began to knit itself together. He wondered at his own capacity for violence, and if it his vendetta against the wolf had really been justified. Looking down, he saw the breathing and beaten form of Martin Delgado.

"You did well, Rick," the fisherman said. "Much better than when I first met you."

"Why didn't you say it was you?"

"Because if you could beat me, you can handle Grant," Martin said. "But don't worry about me. I've been through worse."

Another epiphany struck Rick. "You mean like when Mark Antony's man murdered your friend Cicero or when Sulla and then Julius Caesar marched on Rome? Isn't that right, Romulus Titus?"

"Heh, always knew you'd figure that out sooner or later. I've learned to change my scent over the years to hide my transformation, but you're the first to call me by that name in a very long time."

"There's so much I want to ask you."

"And there's a lot I could tell you, but not until your friends arrive."

Rick looked below him and saw familiar shapes bounding up the side of the hill. Anne, Wang, and Ulfur were rapidly ascending to the hill's point, but he knew deep down to expect them. He now realized that he had signaled them to gather. As the other werewolves approached the apex of the hill, Martin looked up at them with a grin.

"You see, Rick, we can smell our pack when they're nearby, and fight harder as a result. It psychologically boosts our confidence and abilities. Lone wolves don't have that advantage."

"But you thrashed me by yourself."

"That was because I had thousands of years of experience over you, but you narrowed that gap pretty quickly."

"Why did you attack me?"

"Probably the same reason you attacked me, and the others have been posturing so blatantly. Since Grant's broadcast that ritual, it makes us fight harder and stupider. We lash out instead of working together," Martin said. "But you were able to overcome the urge and form a pack."

"And you're in it."

"I always have been, Rick," Martin said, pointing to the lights of the distant temple. "But alone, I sometimes lost it when trying to keep people away from that accursed place."

"Just what's with the manuscript you hid for Tomas, anyway?"

Before Martin could answer that question, the others mounted the summit of the hill. Upon seeing the wounded Martin with Rick hovering over him, they reverted back to human form. Rick did not need to mention all of the split blood that now covered the place in which they had fought. Eager to address his audience, Rick turned to his new guests. "The informant is now safe, despite my own stupidity. You may know him as Martin Delgado, but he's also Romulus Titus and the White Wolf."

Ulfur immediately dropped to one knee. "He's the reason any of us have our condition, the first of our line in Europe. You've found he's been under our noses the whole time."

"Damn, Rick, that's impressive," Anne said. "But you got to the Nazi before I could. When I got there, he was all over the place. I want to be there when you go for Grant."

"This country's facing collapse now, no thanks to the roving death squads. I'd like to nominate Rick as our leader for now, as it's because of him that we were able to meet," Wang said.

Martin, although winded, stood back up. He patted Rick on the shoulder with the paternal pride of a parent watching a graduating son. "Congratulations, kid. You're the alpha now, perhaps of the most powerful pack in the world."

Rick had no words leaving his mouth, but he felt that none were needed. He was no eloquent speaker, nor inspiring officer regaling his troops with tales of martial gallantry. The savage and ugly business of hunting, violence, and war was one he had become familiar with by horrifying twists of fate. From the basement of horrors he had saved his brother Ed from, to the ancestral memorials of long-past battles, to the struggle against the Grant's gang and the werewolves that were now his erstwhile allies, he knew his kind were stepped in bloodshed. Before him were a Roman, a Viking, a Shaolin monk, and a pirate. Here in Montoya, he had the unique chance to interact with those whose memories he had shared, a kinship of blood and family impossible for others to understand. He waited for a moment, to see if any challenges would arise. Anne raised her hand.

"Rick," she said, addressing him directly. "I still have questions."

"So do I, but Martin's volunteered to answer them," Rick said. "Captain, do you have somewhere we could get something to eat? I'm starving."

"I have a base camp by the river, near Martin's boat. Shall we depart?"

Rick nodded, and they descended the hill. Along the way back, Rick informed them of what had transpired in their absence, and they informed him of the chaos shaking the entire country. When they reached the base camp, half-dozen battered peacekeepers in blue helmets saluted the Captain as they surrounded the campfire. One of the enlisted passed around canteens and MREs, pre-prepared rations that would have made Rick throw up if he hadn't recalled worse things his ancestors ate. As they ate, the Captain sent his soldiers away on patrol.

"Now, Martin, you can speak freely," Wang said.

"Sure. Rick was right about the manuscript being important. It's the reason Grant went insane."

"What kind of manuscript is it?" Rick asked.

"One by Francesco Montoya himself. I remember I was working at the University as a repairman a decade ago, when I stumbled upon a musty manuscript during renovation. I gave it to an archaeology faculty member at the time, who kept the discovery to himself. I presume you know who I'm referring to."

Rick nodded, and Martin continued.

"There was a scandal six months later, the details of which I'm still unsure, but Grant was fired and turned to crime soon afterwards."

"That's when the gangs began getting organized," Anne recalled.

Martin exhaled before continuing his yarn.

"Yes, and I made the acquaintance of a young man that was also one of our kind, Tomas Vasquez. I would come to learn he was putting his talents to use for crime bosses."

"Yeah, but wasn't he with Grant?"

"At first, but he soon had misgivings. Grant had tried recreating two separate rituals from the manuscript. One was the summons and call to battle, which we've all experienced."

Rick nodded as his cheeks flushed red out of slight embarrassment.

"The second was something even I wasn't aware of, until Tomas stole the book and showed it to me," Martin explained. "As you know, Upal was run by werewolves long after the other Mayan city-states waned."

"Do we know their lineage? Perhaps one of the skaelrings I bit spread the disease across the New World?" Ulfur asked.

"Their exact lineage is lost, but their tribe had a much higher genetic compatibility with our condition than the general population," Martin explained. "Do you know how we have the rare compulsion to bite those with certain scents? That's how our pathogen spreads. Likewise, we tend to be more instinctively predisposed to trust and relax around those of our lineage."

"But I don't share all of your lineage," Anne said, looking accusingly at Wang. "The Dutch sailor that you bit infected me directly."

"You still share most of the precursors Rick does, despite the drift a few centuries ago," Martin explained. "The empathy is higher for closer kin, if you will. Packs tend to form based on that closeness."

"But what about the other ritual?" Rick inquired.

"Now, the rulers of Upal were smart, but they realized something. Despite their wise rule and martial prowess, the lycanthropes knew they faced attrition. Their numbers waned as warfare with other tribes and Europeans while foreign diseases ravaged their population. So, in desperation, they created a stopgap measure for the lack of genetic diversity."

Rick felt a slight chill down his back.

"Francesco Montoya described it in great detail in his lost manuscript, because he tortured it out of a Mayan captive. It was a method for granting certain werewolf abilities, such as intelligence, healing, reflexes, longevity, and even partial access to the ancestral memories, into a non-compatible human," Martin said with a pause for a breath. "The key ingredient was werewolf blood, preferably from several different lineages."

A horrifying realization danced sparked in Rick's mind as he recalled Grant's behavior. A perverse motivation for use in concert with the summoning ritual. It would lure ever-more victims into the madman's clutches or their own demises, with a supply of blood ensured. It was a perfect and abominable means of harvesting lycanthropes, a vampiric siphoning of life and potential wellsprings of historical lore that endangered the country in the process. It was far worse in Rick's mind than the human sacrifice that the Mayans once practiced, as this insidious power had a global reach.

"The blood was typically used with herbs and substances, but it only lasted for a short period. Each time it was imbibed, greater amounts of blood were required. A craving for new sources of blood also increased. Withdraw caused the individual to become increasingly violent and erratic."

"So drinking werewolf blood makes people crazy?"

"Exactly. The Mayans realized it was a bad idea, but Montoya was intrigued. The mad conquistador began to ambush and kill the werewolves of Upal, harvesting their blood each time. Hell, that's why he got that silver sword. Eventually, the remaining lycanthropes swore fealty to him, and the Spanish conquest was complete."

"What happened then?"

"His madness did not end, and he ran the Spanish colony into the ground until he died. The Upalite royal bloodline was annihilated. In retrospect, he made it easy for the English to come in."

"And that's what Grant's doing all over again," Rick noted. "But how do you know all this, Martin? When did you come here?"

"I fled to Montoya with other Italians after my pack was murdered by Mussolini's fascists, but I was unaware of the significance of this place until I began taking classes here and conducting my own research."

"And you hid this manuscript for Tomas?"

"Correct. After he had stolen it from Grant, he fled north to the US. I wondered if anyone he sent would be a strong enough to help us, but he was right. Without it, Grant's unable to continue his research, so he's willing to tear this country apart to find it."

Rick sighed. He did not know how he had come to hold the burden of responsibility for a country he had barely know about, but he now wanted to see it through. His pack had much invested in the land and its future, and he'd be damned if he'd continue to let anyone destroy it with impunity. While elaborate spiels about glory and righteousness bubbled into his mind like the jungle's swarming mosquitoes, he ignored them for a simpler alternative.

"Eat up and rest, because Grant dies tonight."

His command was meet with unanimous agreement. A smile crossed his face as he realized that perhaps he would be a natural at leading his pack. For their sake, he hoped he was. The past day had been a long, hard, and bloody slog, but it was not over yet. Under the silver moonlight of a tropical night, Grant's life would be offered to the forgotten gods of Upal.