The next thing I remember is waking up in bed the next morning. I felt incredibly comfortable, and so well rested you’d think I’d slept twelve hours, although my clock said it was barely six and I couldn’t have gone to sleep earlier than midnight. Snowflake was curled up next to me, staring at me with an expression of concern in her ice-blue eyes.
It faded the moment I woke up. You’re awake, she whispered into my mind. Good. I was worried about you. That was a very dangerous man.
I tensed up. That wasn’t a dream?
I shivered. The Fenris Wolf was…a very scary person if even a fraction of what was said about him had even a kernel of truth.
This is the short version of his story. Loki, the god of fire and chaos and, at least occasionally, a terrible enemy of the gods, had sired three children with a giantess. The gods prophesied that they would cause great harm, and as a result cast one of them into the ocean and another into the underworld.
Fenrisúlfr was the only one they raised themselves. He was a wolf, and quickly grew to such a size that the gods themselves came to fear him. They arranged for him to be bound with a fetter purchased from the dwarves, made with magic and utterly impossible to break. He was bound at the edge of the world, and a sword was thrust between his jaws so that he couldn’t close them.
But he won’t be bound forever. Eventually Ragnarök, the battle that will kill the gods and destroy the world, will come, and his bindings will break on that day. And he will go forth with a hunger fit to devour the world, his jaws stretching from the earth to the sky. Odin himself, the strongest of the gods and their king, will go to do battle with him and fall.
That’s what the myths say, anyway. I found his version, in which most of that was a metaphor for something humans weren’t really able to understand, more likely. Not so much because I trusted him—only an idiot trusts a god that easily—as because it made sense. I could imagine that deific beings were so far beyond human experience that we couldn’t really understand them at all.
I got up, dressed, and ate, thinking. I was worried about Fenris’s visit. Part of it was simply that the freaking Fenris Wolf was paying attention to me—but not much, because at this point there were enough powerful people looking my way that one more wasn’t too critical. More of it was because of the things he said about my not being a werewolf. That worried me, because if I hadn’t ever been a werewolf….
What had I been?
I thought about that for a while, and got no closer to an answer. I could turn into a wolf, I had all the secondary abilities associated with werewolves—strength, speed, healing, and such—I was pained by the touch of silver and affected by the full moon. That seemed like a pretty clear portrait of a werewolf to me.
Clearly, I needed to speak with someone who knew more about werewolves than me if I wanted to understand what was going on. Unfortunately, people like that are few and far between.
I knew a few of them, though. So I called a familiar number and left a message when nobody answered. Then, as I was getting ready to go to work, I had another thought.
Why had Fenris said I had a big day ahead of me?
I frowned and grabbed another handful of toys to throw in my pockets. Somehow, whatever Fenris had been referring to, I was pretty sure I couldn’t over-prepare for it.
I used to work at a sorta weird repair shop owned by a fae called Dvalin Kovac. He hired me while I was still in college, and I’d been working with him since. For years it was a pretty important part of my life.
In some ways I guess I was still working there. I mean, it was the same shop, and I did a lot of the same work. Val was gone, though. Not long after he presented me with the dubious gift of a powerful, powerfully cursed sword, he’d given me the shop and disappeared for parts unknown. Okay, maybe not completely unknown; the last I heard, he was planning to return to the Otherside for a while and visit his family.
I felt a bit ashamed when I heard that. In all the years I’d known him, it had never once occurred to me that he might have a family. I mean, it was obvious, but…it’s hard for me to wrap my head around the idea of a fae with family. Even harder when that fae was Val.
I’d mostly quit doing repairs in favor of making and fixing furniture. It was sort of funny, because I had two almost completely different groups of customers. One of them were the people who’d been coming for years, mostly since before I started working there, who kept coming for the plethora of services Val had provided. I helped them with what I could, and apologized for the things I couldn’t do. Considering the variety of things Val had done for most of them, I wound up apologizing a lot.
The other group were the new customers, who mostly didn’t realize that I had only had the shop for a couple months. They’re mostly gawkers who come in because I’m publicly known to be a werewolf even though I’m not one (complicated story, don’t ask), and werewolves are new enough to the public eye to make me a kind of celebrity around town. A lot of people are still convinced the whole thing is a hoax, and I honestly can’t blame them. Werewolves are still banned from giving clear evidence that it isn’t, after all, and that tends to limit the credibility of the claim. At this point most of the support for their existence is in the form of various videos, and while those videos are very plausible, people don’t take that kind of thing on faith these days.
Either way, though, people are still fascinated by the prospect. There are plenty of people who are willing to go to my shop just so they can say that they bought something from a werewolf.
I vastly prefer the first group. There are people who would probably kill to get that much attention, but I’m not one of them. It makes me feel like I’m in a zoo.
On the way to work a fire hydrant exploded and sent a chunk of metal the size of my fist at my head with lethal force. I dropped to the ground instantly and without thinking, rolled under the spraying water, and came up on the other side. The whole incident barely interrupted my stride.
It’s probably a bad sign when you get that accustomed to assassination attempts, but I couldn’t help it. In the past six months I’d encountered two hundred and forty-seven of them, none of which had come all that close to succeeding. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of them. There wasn’t any pattern to them that I could find. Sometimes weeks would go by uneventfully. On the other hand, I’d also run into twenty-three in one day. They had been as absurd as a basket of exotic venomous snakes launched out of a catapult, as difficult to arrange as a car crashing into a store downtown while I happened to be standing near the window, and as unlikely to succeed as a paper airplane that had somehow been sharpened, reinforced, and sent flying at my head one evening.
I’m pretty sure whoever’s behind it isn’t actually trying to kill me, because there’s been a distinct lack of…more or less anything which makes sense as an actual means of assassination. I mean, if you really want somebody dead, most of the time the simple plans are best. Guns work pretty well. If you really have to go all Wile E. Coyote, you should probably pass on the catapults and skip right to a metric ton of dynamite. That works pretty well too. Failing that lighting somebody’s house on fire while they’re sleeping isn’t a bad choice, and of course you can always fall back on poison.
None of which had been used on me so far. Well, technically poison had shown up a few times, but not in any practical way. I mean, a poisoned apple placed on your table while you’re gone isn’t exactly subtle, and you’d have to be tragically stupid to eat it if you already know somebody’s trying, in even a very casual way, to kill you. The pie that had been laced with strychnine and dropped on my doorstep without a note was almost worse, because that’s a bad idea even if you don’t have any enemies.
The repeated and ridiculous attacks have accomplished one thing, though. I mean, I thought I was paranoid before, but that’s got nothing on now. Case in point: fire hydrant. I’m fast, but not fast enough to duck that unless I was already sort of expecting something bad to happen.
Once I got to work things were pretty uneventful. There were a handful of people there throughout the morning, which was moderately irritating since I had to drop everything every time somebody came in, but not serious. Certainly nothing like what you would expect to bring a warning from the Fenris Wolf.
About noon, when I’d just started thinking about wrapping up for lunch, the bell at the front counter dinged again. I walked out and found a pleasant-looking young man with dark hair and bright green eyes waiting for me. I must have had an interesting expression on my face, because when he saw me he laughed. It was a pleasant, light sound, but not especially remarkable.
“Conn?” I said incredulously. “What are you doing here?”
The Khan of the werewolves looked at me with laughter in his eyes. “Aren’t you the one that called me looking for advice?” he asked.
“Well, sure, but that was just this morning. I hadn’t even heard from you yet. I sure wasn’t expecting you to visit in person.”
He shrugged. “When you called I was flying home from California with a layover in Denver. Wasn’t hard to get from there to Colorado Springs.”
“And you didn’t call me back because…?”
He grinned slyly. “I thought it would be more fun to surprise you. And I was right.”
I sighed. “You,” I said, “are ridiculous.” It was the kind of thing I would be more likely to expect from a twelve-year-old than the oldest and most powerful werewolf in the world.
Conn ignored me, instead lounging on one of the chairs I had in the office portion of the shop for waiting customers. I idly noted that he had already flipped the sign in the window to CLOSED. “How do you like being in business for yourself?” he asked me.
I shrugged and sat down as well, so that it wouldn’t seem like I was looming over him. Conn is secure enough in his authority that he doesn’t care if people act in a way that suggests dominance to him, but I generally don’t anyway. “Could be worse,” I said. “I never realized how many things Val took care of that I didn’t know about.” Things like licenses and taxes, both of which I was pretty sure he had ignored with a casualness that I could only envy.
Conn nodded sympathetically. “You doing all right for cash?”
“Pretty much, yeah. Speaking of, why did you send me that money back in January?”
He shrugged. “You took care of an element in the Courts that was bothering me endlessly. Seemed like the least I could do to pay you for your trouble.”
I estimated that he’d paid quite a bit better per hour than my day job, not even counting the other rewards that I’d gotten for that particular event. Considering the condition I came out in, I wasn’t arguing. It might pay well, but I wasn’t going to be taking a job as a supernatural mercenary any time soon.
“So what did you need advice on?” he asked.
I hesitated. “It’s kind of complicated….”
“Goodness,” he said dryly. “A situation involving you? Complicated? I never would have guessed.”
I tried to look indignant, but couldn’t manage to keep from smiling. If you can forget what he is and what he represents, Conn is actually very good company. Then you remember that his job description includes ruling a good chunk of the world’s werewolves with an iron fist, and ruthlessly killing anyone that gets out of line, and you go back to being scared of him.
“Well,” he said, “it’s lunchtime, and in my experience complicated problems seldom suffer for being discussed over food.”
Of course not. In a werewolf’s mind, there isn’t anything that doesn’t benefit from the addition of food. “What did you have in mind?”
“Well,” he said slyly, “I hear a new place opened up around town recently. Sort of a theme restaurant, I understand. I think it was called the Full Moon Grill. Maybe you’ve heard of it?”
I sighed. Of course. “Ridiculous,” I repeated.
“You really think it’s a good idea to talk that way to the person buying you lunch?” he asked. “Besides, from what I hear it isn’t that ridiculous of a place. I mean, we might even see a werewolf.”
I followed him out the door with a sigh.
The Full Moon Grill is an interesting place. It reminds me of a casino in some ways, simply because the glamorous image it presents is so utterly different from the reality. If you know what’s really going on, it seems incredible that so many people get taken in by the glitzy facade.
To the outsider, it’s a theme restaurant that’s made its reputation on the recent werewolf craze. Everything about it is engineered on that basis. The menu items are overpriced, have ridiculous names to fit the theme, and tend to involve lots and lots of meat. The furniture is all wood, mismatched, and some of it looks like it’s been chewed on. All of the publicly acknowledged werewolves in town, including me, eat there on a semi-regular basis. Werewolves in fur, hang out there as well. In just a few short months it’s become a popular tourist destination for those who are, or think they are, enamored with all things lycanthropic.
The behind-the-scenes look is a little different. I made most of the furniture myself, and as a result know perfectly well that it isn’t my best work. The chewed-on look was produced with power tools rather than teeth. The food isn’t much different from what you would get at any steakhouse in the city, except that it maybe costs a little more. Oh yeah, and the werewolves? We spend most of our time there talking about how much we hate the attention we’ve been getting. None of us is the type to enjoy being in the public eye. It makes it even worse being in a place where practically everybody is guaranteed to recognize us, and stare.
The only reason that most of us go is that, as I think most of the customers suspect, the pack owns the place. Kyra, the recently minted Alpha and my good friend, asks us with exceptional vigor to spend a certain amount of time there every month. The idea is to make werewolves seem both everyday and a bit ridiculous, so that even the people who believe the stories can’t take us seriously. Strangely enough, it seems to be working. Love ’em or hate ’em, it’s hard to see someone as mysterious and terrifying when they’re basically a sideshow at a tourist trap.
I’m sure it’s a total and unintended coincidence that the restaurant also rakes in cash hand over fist. Sure it is.
Not that it’s all worked out that smoothly. There have been quite a few lynchings in rural areas, and wherever you go it’s not hard to find people muttering that werewolves ought to be shot. Honestly, it makes me sort of glad that Conn’s taking the low-key, careful approach that he is. The werewolves went public six months ago, and since then almost nothing’s changed. They aren’t allowed to change in public, and any breaches of secrecy are treated as harshly as they’ve ever been. The government is still treating the whole thing as a hoax.
I think my favorite part of the restaurant’s act is the werewolves in fur, though. Conn and I walked past one lounging near the bar as we entered, a dark-furred wolf named Robert that I knew very vaguely. Anywhere else he would have been assumed to be the owner’s dog or something, and treated like part of the scenery. Werewolves don’t really look all that doglike, but in my experience, most people will if given the slightest opportunity gladly deceive themselves to an absolutely absurd extent to avoid an uncomfortable truth.
The amusing thing is that the same goes in reverse, too. So, elsewhere, people mistake werewolves for dogs. In the Full Moon Grill, they mistake dogs for werewolves. See, there are a relatively few werewolves in the pack willing to loiter around in fur in a restaurant all day. Maybe a dozen, tops. Most of them are the same wolves who are currently known to the public and therefore have to appear there in human form on a regular basis anyway.
So, to make up the difference, Kyra has dogs come in and pretend to be werewolves. Several of the pack have dogs, and most of them are pretty well trained. Snowflake does her share, and in fact she’s actually one of the most frequent choices, because her uncanny intelligence makes her an excellent actor. She find the whole thing very amusing, as do I.
Conn and I sat at a small table near the railing on the upper level. From that position, both of us could see the door, and if we really wanted to it wouldn’t be hard to get down there very quickly. A ten-foot drop isn’t all that much of an impediment to a werewolf.
“I’m surprised you wanted to come here,” I said.
He looked at me as though puzzled. “I thought the whole point of this restaurant was that it appealed to werewolves.”
“It’s more of a tourist trap than anything. Most of the serious people on the scene go to Pryce’s place.”
Conn frowned, and it seemed as though a shadow were passing over his normally cheerful features. “I don’t care for that man. What he’s done to himself is wrong in every sense of the word.”
I looked away, shivering a little. For an instant—just one instant—Conn had stopped looking like a pleasant young man, and started to resemble what he really was. He might not look like much—actually, I know he doesn’t look like much—but Conn is scary. No one’s ever been willing or able to tell me how old he is, but I know that his youngest child is at least two hundred years old, and she says that Conn was old when she was born.
More than that, though, he’s the Khan, with everything that means.
Alpha werewolves are powerful. They are, by virtue of the personality traits that enable them to be Alpha in the first place, generally domineering and disinclined to take orders. Thanks to the position they hold within their packs they don’t generally have to, which just makes them like it less.
Conn rules all the Alphas in a good portion of the world. All of them. If he tells them to jump, the only question they ask is how high. You don’t get that kind of authority by being pleasant.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. It isn’t a lie. Conn really is a nice guy, most of the time, and he has a sense of humor—the fact that he chose a title phonetically identical to his first name is ample testament to that. it’s just that underneath that is an old, powerful werewolf who brooks no threat to his authority, and is perfectly willing to kill those who challenge him. I’d seen him do it once. It was…memorable.
And when I mentioned Pryce’s name, for one second I saw through the surface to the darkness underneath, and was reminded of why I was usually more uncomfortable around Conn than this.
And then the moment was over. Conn shook his head like a dog shedding water, and I got the sense that he was aware of what I had seen—and it made him as uncomfortable as it did me. “What did you call me about, anyway?” he asked in the too-casual tone of someone trying to change the subject quickly.
I was happy to comply. “I realized that there are a few things about werewolves I don’t know that might be important to me.”
“Well, for one thing, where do they come from? I know that people can be changed into werewolves,” I said, forestalling his immediate response. “But that only works if there’s a werewolf to change them, so obviously that can’t be where it started. So where did werewolves originate?”
He seemed to think about that for a moment, staring past my shoulder as though looking at something only he could see. “An interesting question,” he said slowly. “One I’ve often wondered myself.”
I blinked. “You don’t know?” I asked. Logically I knew there was no reason he shouldn’t be as ignorant as I was, but on a subconscious level I was used to Conn knowing everything.
He grinned briefly. “I’m old, but I’m not that old. Werewolves had existed for a long time before I was born. That said, I am familiar with a few stories about our origins.”
“Well,” he said slowly, as though remembering something he hadn’t thought of in a long time, “one of the more common is that werewolves are as ancient as humanity, or more so. Some say that in ancient times, before the magical and the mundane were seen as being quite so separate, there were men and women who had a talent for what we call magic. These people, like many of that time, were hunters, and their nature was such that other hunters found in them a kindred spirit. They sought greater and more powerful knowledge and magics, and in the seeking they changed. They became as other hunters, as the beasts that preyed on them as they preyed on others. Over time, these people became the first of what we now call werewolves.”
Conn’s voice had taken on a measured, almost ritual quality, which reminded me of the long hours I’d spent hearing old stories from Dolph and Erin—unsurprising, given that they’re his children. In spite of that, though, there were cues if you knew what to listen for. “You disagree?” I asked.
“I find it an incomplete explanation. If that were the case you would expect to find shapeshifters everywhere, which you do. Actual werewolves, though, are native only to western Europe. If it’s a universal magic that was formed from shamanic traditions in prehistoric times, why would it only have developed in a small part of the world?” He shook his head.
“So what do you think the answer is?”
He frowned. “The story I find most believable is that once, long before the birth of Christ, the fae were as powerful as gods in that part of the world. Much more powerful, even, than they are now. In that time there was a young warrior who was favored of one by the greatest of the fae. He was smart and strong and dangerous, but it came about that he was also tired and outnumbered, and he knew that he would die on the morrow. So, as desperate young warriors have been known to do, he called upon those more powerful than himself for aid. And, of course, this fae lord heard him, and answered. He was given power enough to defeat his enemies, but like all fae gifts it came with a cost.” He smiled a little. “I think you can guess it from there.”
Well, that was interesting. It made sense, in a way. I knew that some of the greater fae had been worshipped as gods by the early Europeans, especially in the British Isles. It was true, too, that being a werewolf was about equal parts gift and curse. I could see a faerie gift taking that form.
Of course, the fae weren’t the only ones who might do something like that. “Have you ever heard Fenris mentioned in that context?” I asked.
Conn frowned again, more deeply. “Fenrisúlfr? Not specifically, no.” He shrugged. “Fenrir is as likely a source as any. It would explain a few things, I suppose. Now what brought this on?”
I frowned and opened my mouth to explain. Before I could, though, somebody kicked the front door in. Two young men walked through. One of them had the arrogant swagger of a kid with more bravado than sense who hadn’t ever been in real danger. The other moved with a kind of nervousness that suggested that he was just starting to realize that this might not have been the best idea, and it was too late for him to back out now. I saw him glance longingly out at the street a few times as the duo entered the restaurant.
Oh yeah, and both of them had already drawn pistols which looked significantly more deadly than the men themselves.
It is days like this that I hate my life.