A Gathering of Rookies

Avril 27, 1033 P.W.D

            Wolfsbane Bendis sat there in his seat by the window in the Day Trip Class car on his way to Little Oak. The clatter and chug of the train as it made its way down the tracks toward his destination did little to sooth his nerves, however. The ten-year-old boy had not too long ago passed his IWHA werewolf hunter’s license exam with the top grade in his group—a perfect score on his written exam and a near-perfect score in combat—and was now headed to the home of his assigned rookie squad leader for the final phase of the licensing process.

            He had insisted on riding to Little Oak on his own. It was only a five hour ride by train from Berrywood and he had the address and directions to the man’s home in his pocket. Besides, as a werewolf hunter, Wolfsbane would have to find his way to and through unfamiliar towns on a regular basis…so he might as well begin with finding his way to Ritrian Wieland’s house by himself.

            Running a hand through his short black hair, he fixed his emerald green eyes on the greening landscape as it whizzed by. It was early spring, and the earth was already covered with green grass and a few early-blooming flowers. Bursting buds on trees and bushes were slowly turning dead-seeming brown wood back into a support lattice for the coming leaves, and farmers were tending their newly-thawed fields.

            ‘Will this be my last spring?’ Wolfsbane couldn’t help but think as he took it all in. After all, being a werewolf hunter was dangerous work. Even the best of the best were in danger of dying in the line of duty every single time they went out on a job, and he was just an un-ranked rookie—granted, a rookie who had been training to fight since he was two years old and a Bendis besides, but a rookie none the less. As second son of his family line, it was his duty to fight and defend humanity against the werewolf menace…but that didn’t mean that he wasn’t afraid.

            Luckily for him, his dour thoughts were sliced through by the conductor’s voice over the P.A. system calling, “Next stop, Little Oak Station! Little Oak Station, coming up in five minutes!” At that, Wolfsbane began checking his bags and secured the gun belt around his waist which held his semi-automatic pistol. By the time that he’d gotten his backpack on and his duffle bag down from the overhead rack (he’d needed a little help from one of the adult passengers for that, seeing as how he was only about four-foot-ten), the train was already pulling in at his stop.

            As he stepped off of the train and onto the busy platform, he took a quick look around. All about, people were getting on and off of the train, or waiting for a train to board or for someone they knew to get off. Wolfsbane didn’t spot anyone waiting for him, however, and so continued on through the station and out to the streets of the town. Outside, there was more hustle and bustle as carts and wagons, riders and streetcars made their way through the streets and people crowded the sidewalks on their way to and from lunch and errands.

            He felt his own stomach rumble as he passed a hotdog cart, but continued on. After all, Mr. Wieland would probably have refreshments at his house for the meeting. So, despite how delicious those hotdogs smelled—good enough that a deep-down part of him wanted to pant and drool—he resolved to save his appetite.

            After about half an hour of making his way through crowded streets, he finally found his way to the neighborhood where his squad leader lived. It was a quiet upscale community with tree-lined streets and gray stone townhouses decorated with elegant friezes and gargoyles and carved stone pillars. Most of the people who lived there were no doubt bankers, lawyers, doctors, or politicians, but it was no surprise to him that a werewolf hunter would also take up residence in such a neighborhood. After all, it was a very highly-paid profession, and Wolfsbane’s own family lived in an elegant mansion on a spacious country estate. Maybe, if he was lucky, he could have a house in a neighborhood like this too someday? …Then again, he greatly preferred the country to the city. There was much more open space and greenery out there.

            Wolfsbane counted the house numbers as he walked down the street and finally stopped in front of one on the corner and double-checked the address on the piece of paper in his hand. “167 Bowdwynn Street…this is it,” he muttered to himself as he looked up at the stately townhouse before him. Then, he took a deep breath, shoved the paper back into the pocket of his black woolen, silver-adamant alloy mail lined jacket, walked through the unlocked front gate and up the steps, and rang the doorbell. The whole time, his heart pounded and he felt—and just barely resisted—the urge to run his tongue over his canine teeth. This was the big moment.

            It didn’t take long for the door to be answered by a tall, well-built man who looked to be in his late thirties or early forties. He was dressed in all black aside from the white chef’s apron he wore over his clothes, and his light brown hair was cut short and neat. “Hi, there. Come on in,” the man said with a smile. “I’m Ritrian Weiland. And you’re…”

            “First Year Rookie Hunter Wolfsbane Bendis, reporting for duty, Sir,” Wolfsbane replied, standing at attention and saluting him. “It’s an honor to be serving under you, Master Weiland.”

            The man laughed and patted Wolfsbane on the shoulder. “At ease, Soldier,” he said as he ushered him into the spacious wood-paneled foyer and closed the door behind them. “No need for the formalities. You can just call me Ritrian, kid. You’re a little bit early, so lunch isn’t quite ready yet, but there’s cookies in the jars on the kitchen counter and fresh milk in the fridge. Feel free to help yourself if you need something to tide you over.”

            “Thank you, Sir…uh, Ritrian,” Wolfsbane said respectfully as he followed him down the hall. He led him into the living room first to drop off his bags, then on to the kitchen.

            The kitchen door had a dark wooden frame, a pane of frosted glass set in the top half, and a solid wood panel decorated with an inlay of lighter wood arranged in a complex geometric pattern in the bottom half. The kitchen beyond had sky blue tile walls, white marble floors and countertops, big windows and glass double doors facing the small but tidy backyard, and a pressed tin ceiling. The cabinets were all medium wood and all of the fixtures were copper…or, at least, copper plated. On the kitchen table was a large round pan, maybe sixteen or eighteen inches in diameter, holding a flattened lump of dough almost completely covered with some sort of red sauce and shredded cheese. Beside the pan were a bowl of sliced onions and peppers and a cutting board full of chopped sausage.

            Wolfsbane looked at the ingredients on the table curiously for a moment as Ritrian returned to his work, then asked, “What is that?”

            “Oh, this?” Ritrian said as he began to sprinkle the vegetables on top of the cheese. “It’s a dish from the Breeze Port area called pizza…or, at least, it will be once it’s baked in the oven for a few minutes. You get to sample a lot of exotic dishes like this when you’re traveling around on business…probably one of the few perks of this job.”

            “So that’s pizza…” Wolfsbane said, unable to restrain his wonder. “Aunt Osprey told me once that she, Mother, and Uncle Falcon each tried to eat a whole one by themselves to settle a bet. Uncle Falcon won.”

            Ritrian laughed. “That sounds about right!” he said, turning to Wolfsbane with a big smile on his face. “One time I was at the Hunters’ station over in Kara-Kara with those three, your father, and your uncle Eagle during Luminmas and…well, let’s just say if the five of them hadn’t been there, there would have been no party.”

            The both of them laughed—Wolfsbane at the thought of his elders’ antics and Ritrian at the memory—then Ritrian returned to work and Wolfsbane washed his hands and went over to the counter where the cookie jars sat. There were three cookie jars in all: a penguin with a funny hat, a fat cheetah, and a brown dog with a bone in its mouth. Beside the cookie jars were four plain white saucers and four empty glasses.

            Wolfsbane grabbed a plate and opened up the penguin. Inside were little chocolate cookies with white cream in the middle. He placed three on his plate and moved onto the cheetah, which was full of chocolate chip cookies. As he was placing the chocolate chip cookies on his plate, the doorbell rang. He heard the metallic scrape and pop as Ritrian put the pizza in the oven, and the sound of the kitchen door opening and shutting as he left to answer the bell, leaving Wolfsbane all alone in that kitchen.

            It didn’t faze him, however. Cookies and conversation had, for now, soothed his nerves enough that he felt that he could handle a few moments alone in a stranger’s kitchen. Instead, he simply placed the head back on the cheetah and opened up the dog. Inside, there were several brown, bone-shaped cookies. Just as he’d done before, he added a few of these to his plate and closed up the jar. Then, he grabbed a glass, poured himself some milk, and took his snack into the living room to enjoy.

            Settled in on the comfy couch, with his plate in hand and his glass on one of the cork coasters on the coffee table, Wolfsbane decided to sample the odd bone-shaped cookies first. He had expected a chocolate or spice flavor by the look of them but, to his surprise, upon biting into one he found it to be meat flavored—beef to be exact—and it was delicious! Ritrian came in with a group of three other children about his age just as he was starting in on the second beef cookie—a boy with blonde hair and a pair of pistols at his hips, a black-haired boy with glasses and a sniper rifle across his back, and a very cute girl with brown hair that was tied back in a ponytail with a hot pink ribbon and two bandoliers of throwing knives strapped across her chest—and they all paused in their tracks upon seeing him.

            “Hello, everyone,” Wolfsbane said with a smile. “You should definitely have some cookies. The beef flavored ones in the dog jar are especially good!”

            “Beef flavored…?” the black-haired boy said, raising an eyebrow as the other two children stared at Wolfsbane in confusion and disbelief.

            “Yes, beef flavored,” Wolfsbane replied, holding out his untouched third beef cookie. “Would you like to try?”

            “Uh…Wolfsbane…kid…” Ritrian said, shaking his head, “those aren’t cookies, they’re dog biscuits. Though, Bella could stand to go on a diet…”

            “Dog…biscuits…?” Wolfsbane said, suddenly feeling his cheeks flush with embarrassment. “Um…Yes, I knew that. I was just…playing a prank. That’s all. Ha…ha-ha…ha…”

            “Weirdo…” the girl said, rolling her eyes at him—which made him feel even more embarrassed.

            “Don’t be too hard on him, Emily,” Ritrian said, smiling gently now. “It’s not always easy to pull a successful prank on total strangers. Come on, let’s get you three some cookies—minus the dog biscuits—while I check on lunch.”

            With that, Ritrian led the other three off to the kitchen. As soon as they had been out of his sight for a few seconds, Wolfsbane set his plate down on the coffee table and buried his head in his hands in abject mortification. “Stupid, stupid idiot!” he whispered to himself tensely as he strained to keep down the growls and whimpers that he would have uttered without hesitation when he was little, but now knew to be sounds unfit to escape from a human throat and especially not the throat of a werewolf hunter. “You blew it! Now your whole squad thinks that you are a freak! …I wish that Silver was here…” He paused and thought a moment on that last one, then muttered, “Wait, no…Silver would have just sat there and smiled as I made a fool of myself and then made a snide comment about it. Damn! Why can’t I be cool like him?!”

            His older brother Silver was basically always calm and in control. He was an excellent swordsman, a strong martial artist, a crack shot…and he had been assigned to a rookie squad all the way on the other side of the continent. They had taken the license exam together that Marz and Silver had scored just a few points lower on his written test than Wolfsbane, and the only reason why he hadn’t gotten a perfect score in combat was because of that thirty percent deduction for using a sword—otherwise, everyone agreed that he would have scored a perfect eight hundred. Wolfsbane looked up to his older brother, wished that he could be as tough and cool and scary as him…and he had resolved to do his best to become like that. Maybe then he wouldn’t screw up quite so often.

            He had just barely regained his composure when the other three kids returned, each with a plate of cookies and a glass of milk in hand. “Hey, you doing O.K., man?” the blonde boy asked as he sat down next to Wolfsbane on the couch and the other two took a seat on the loveseat across from them. “Eating a dog biscuit is kind of far to go for a failed prank, after all.”

            “Yes, I think that I’m over it now. Thank you,” Wolfsbane replied.

            “No sweat,” the blonde boy said, taking a bite of a chocolate chip cookie. “The name’s Blake, by the way. Blake Hardcort. The girl with the knives is Emily Vardell, and Capitain Sunshine over there is Orin Knash.”

            “It’s nice to meet you all. I’m Wolfsbane Bendis,” Wolfsbane said, trying to take advantage of this second chance at a first impression.

            Once again, the others paused and stared at him for a moment. “Bendis?” Emily asked in disbelief. “Like the famous family of hunters who’ve been at it for, like, seven centuries, Bendis?!”

            “Yes, that’s right,” Wolfsbane said with a nod.

            Blake and Emily uttered an amazed “Woah”, but Orin simply took a sip of his milk and pushed up his glasses. “Wolfsbane Bendis…interesting,” he said coolly. “Second son of Hawk and Eliza Bendis; birth date: Februne 14, 1023; older sisters: X-2 hunter duo River and Flood Bendis, thirteen; older brother: Rookie hunter Silver Bendis, twelve; younger brother: Inferno Bendis, seven; scored a perfect eight hundred on the written exam and a seven-thirty five on the combat exam; specialties are tracking and light arms combat…am I correct?”

            “Uh…frighteningly,” Wolfsbane said. “How do you know all of that about me?”

            “I make it a point to know everything there is to know about those who out-compete me,” Orin replied matter-of-factly, “just in case there comes a time when I must kill them.”

            Wolfsbane felt a chill run up and down his spine at Orin’s words. “Dude, you don’t say stuff like that to people,” Blake said with a grimace. “It makes you look psycho.”

            “It’s not ‘psycho,’ it’s pragmatic,” Orin said. “In this line of work, you never know when your best friend will become the next monster that you must destroy. That’s just life.”

            “Yeah, but still, no need to be a creeper about it,” Emily said, then turned to Wolfsbane and added, “He was like this the whole train ride over here too. You’d think a guy whose mom is a sky pirate would be a lot less of a wet blanket…”

            “…Please don’t bring up my mother’s occupation,” Orin said blandly. “I barely even know the woman and the one time that I did meet her, she was wearing three different pairs of goggles and too many belts.”

            At that moment, Ritrian returned to the living room…this time minus the apron. “Alright, you guys, the pizza is out of the oven and ready to go,” he said cheerfully. “If the young lady and gents would kindly follow me to the dining room…”

            And so they did, bringing what remained of their cookies and milk along with them into the elegant dining room, which was well-lit by a large bay window which took up most of the street-facing wall. The finished pizza was placed in the center of the long wooden table along with a big glass bottle of root beer. There were five place settings, each with a plate, an empty glass mug, and a simple black cloth napkin…but no silverware. The lack of eating utensils puzzled Wolfsbane for a moment until he remembered that he had been told that pizza was meant to be eaten with one’s hands, and not with a knife and fork.

            He and his new squad mates all sat down at the table and Ritrian served them each a slice of the hot, delicious-smelling dish. As each piece of pizza was lifted up from the whole, strings of melted cheese followed behind like celebratory streamers. And the taste…Wolfsbane had never tasted anything like it before in his life! The sauce was savory and just a little sweet, melding well with the cheese, peppers, onions, and the slightly spicy flavor if the sausage, and the crust was thin but strong enough to hold everything upon it without falling apart, but also tender and just chewy enough to be substantial. He did burn the roof of his mouth a little on his first bite, however…but it still did not detract from his enjoyment one bit. He really could see how someone could eat an entire pizza by himself.

            Between bites of pizza and cookies and sips of root beer and milk, they all continued to get better acquainted. As they did, he could feel himself becoming more and more attached to his squad leader and team mates despite his father’s words of warning. “Don’t get too attached to anyone in your rookie squad,” Father had said, “because you never know when your best friend will be torn to bits right in front of your face.” Father, of course, was speaking on the matter from direct experience. His best friend in his squad was killed right in front of him during their final rookie mission.

            However, at that moment in time he could also hear Mother’s words of advice in his head. “Don’t be afraid of making friends with your squad mates,” she had told him. “One of the people you meet there could end up becoming your best friend for life!” She, too, was speaking from experience. Mother and Aunt Osprey had met in rookie squad, and they became the very best of friends and worked together for years as fully licensed hunters until Mother had retired to start a family. So, maybe getting just a little bit attached for now couldn’t hurt…

            After lunch, Ritrian showed them all to their assigned rooms upstairs. Emily got her own since she was the only girl, but Wolfsbane, Blake, and Orin had to share a room. The door to their room was already open when they reached it and there, laid out across nearly the entire length of one the bottom bunks of the two sets of bunk beds within, was an enormous dog with floppy ears and a thick, brown coat.

            “Bella, how many times do I have to tell you that these guest beds are for my students, not for you?” Ritrian said in a firm-yet-exasperated tone of voice, like a parent reprimanding a child for the umpteenth time, as he approached the dog on the bed. “Come on, girl. Off.”

            The dog, Bella, simply opened her eyes, slowly raised her huge head at him, yawned, and laid her head back down again with a lazy little whine. Apparently, she was not a big believer in the idea of a dog following its master’s orders. In fact, her behavior sort of reminded Wolfsbane of how cats behaved in the funny books. Granted, he had never lived with a cat before—or any other house pets…although he did have a pony back home—so all that he really knew of them was from the funny books. Though, he had heard that comedy was always based on truth, so there was probably something to them.

            “Bella…Off,” Ritrian said, more sternly this time. Still, the big brown dog resisted, rolling over onto her other side this time in response.

            Blake laughed. “Looks like she just told you,” he snickered.

            “Gods, she always does this,” Ritrian sighed, turning back to them. “I swear, she thinks she’s some kind of High Queen or something…”

            “Um…may I try?” Wolfsbane asked tentatively. Really, all he wanted was a chance to pet the dog—her fur looked sooo soft—but he didn’t want to let on that that was the case.

            “Sure, go ahead,” Ritrian said, scratching his head and taking a few steps back from the bed. “She’s all yours, kid.”

            Wolfsbane approached the bed slowly, trying not to make any sudden movements. Then, when he was within range, he reached out to stroke the dog’s head. “Hey there, Bella,” he said as she raised her head and looked up into his eyes a moment, then sniffed his hand, “I’m Wolfsbane.” Bella gave his hand a good, warm, wet lick.

            “Nice to meet you too,” he giggled as he continued to pet her…she really was soft. “You’re such a sweet girl, yes you are.”

            Bella rolled over on her back and he began rubbing her belly. She panted contently and wiggled one of her hind legs as he scratched her—first with one hand, then with both—and gave a happy little whine.

            “Yes, there’s a good girl,” he said with a smile. Then, he gave her head and chin a few strokes and asked, “Could you do me a favor, Bella? Can you come off the bed for me, please?”

            Wolfsbane stopped rubbing her and moved back. As he did, Bella rolled over to face him, then got up on all fours—she was big enough at the shoulder to match Ritrian’s waist—then got down off the bed and started licking Wolfsbane’s face. Her tongue tickled him as she covered him with a generous dose of slobber, then she sauntered over to inspect and greet Blake and Orin as well.

            “Well, what do you know?” Ritrian said, patting Wolfsbane on the head as Bella licked and received a good petting from Blake and then moved on to Orin. “Bella actually listened to you. Either she could smell the dog biscuits on your breath, or you really made a good first impression on her.”

            “Ew! No! Stop that!” Orin cried out as Bella began moistening his face with her big wet tongue, just as she had with Wolfsbane. “I know where that thing has been and it is absolutely not sanitary!”

 §§§

            It was nine thirty in the evening and Ritrian had finally gotten his newest charges to bed. On his own bed, his dog Bella was stretched out contently as if she owned the thing. Maybe he had spoiled her far too much as a puppy or something…but how could he deny those big brown eyes and that sweet face of hers? Even as big as she was, he just couldn’t help but give in more often than not…well, unless it came down to furniture chewing or something like that. He had had surprisingly little trouble getting past her cute face on those occasions.

            He sighed and shook his head at her as he closed the bedroom door behind him, then sat down at his desk, cracked open one of the four brand new composition books—one for each kid—that he had bought at the drugstore the day before, and began filling in his first-day notes. Ever since he became a rookie squad leader six years back, he had been keeping private files on every single one of his students. These were totally separate from the official reports that he was required to send to IWHA Central HQ after every mission…and often contained information that he deliberately omitted from those reports—generally things that might cause trouble for his charges if the higher-ups knew anything about them, but that he still needed to keep track of to get the best out of each of them. After all, helping rookie hunters—especially the youngest ones—to see and fulfill their potential was the entire reason why he had applied to become a rookie squad leader instead of simply retiring.

            The first three evaluations were all pretty standard. Eleven-year-old Emily was a strong-willed young lady, very bright, but just a little bit rash and hot-headed. Ritrian laughed to himself as he remembered how she had chewed poor Blake out over dinner when he’d made a comment about how her butt would start to look like a pair of dinner rolls after she’d gotten her third one of the night. She was raised by an assassin and her grifter brother after they found her on someone’s doorstep, and she was very good with knives and guns. When her adopted family was murdered by a werewolf the year before, she decided to join up with the IWHA so that she could hunt the witch down. She’d probably be a challenge. The ones motivated by revenge always were.

            Next, there was ten-year-old Blake. He was a cheerful, friendly kid who was quick to joke and super approachable—a guy who could make anyone feel comfortable talking to him…sort of like Ritrian’s own former rookie squad mate, Falcon Bendis. Also like Falcon, the kid was an ace gunslinger and a bit of a daredevil too. Like so many of the youngest kids that he had ended up working with over the years, Blake had been orphaned by werewolves as well. The hunter who saved him, Vince Donahue, adopted and raised him, and trained him to fight. That was a plus, the kid having already seen a bit of real action…and Vince was an X-5 hunter with a scary-impressive record that included three solo kills of packs numbering ten or more! Unlike Emily, Blake’s only goal was to protect people.

            As for Orin…he was a forty-year-old hitman in an eleven-year-old kid’s body, Ritrian was sure of it. The boy was cold, calculating, pragmatic…it was definitely a surprise to learn that he was the son of Capitan Moira “Black Jack” Fenton of the Crimson Eagle, one of the most outrageous and flamboyant sky pirates around. Then again, the kid’s dad was an alchemy professor at Winnelwood University, so maybe he took more after him. He had the kind of eyes that seemed to always be deconstructing and analyzing the world around him every second, and was an expert sniper…but was probably a better detective. All he’d stated about his reasons for joining the IWHA was that there were those who abused power who needed to be punished—and that could mean a million different things.

            And finally there was Wolfsbane, Falcon’s nephew, a light arms specialist, decent all-around fighter, and skilled tracker. He was quiet and serious for a ten-year-old too, but not in the scary way that Orin was. No. Wolfsbane was more shy…and kind of sad. It was almost as if he was afraid to let his true self shine through and seemed to think that burying it was a much better idea. Maybe there was something to that, since he seemed to have been genuinely enjoying those dog biscuits and had actually been able to taste the beef flavor—his reaction to the revelation that they weren’t cookies was just too honest for it all to have been just a prank. Being able to taste the meat flavor in those doggie treats was a Level 3 lycanthropic tell, right up there with bearing the mark of the pentagram on one’s body…but the kid wasn’t a werewolf. He had sensors rigged all over the house that would have reacted and changed color if he was, even if he was using a scent-masking glamor and pulling in his power. Those sensors had ratted out a few of Ritrian’s best friends to him, guys who otherwise showed only the occasional subtle Level 1 tell. Maybe Wolfsbane just had a very strong affinity for the Wild element (he’d be testing the kids’ elemental alignments as part of the next day’s training just to be sure of his own initial evaluations anyway), but it could also have been that the boy was transpirited…

            “Damn. First day and I’m already stumbling on shit the higher-ups should never know,” Ritrian muttered to himself, shaking his head as he closed the notebook. “Once again, a Bendis is making my life more interesting than it probably ought to be…”

            Then, he got up, stretched, turned out the light, and struggled his way into the bed beside his dog…who was reluctant to let him pull enough blanket out from under her to cover himself. Tomorrow was going to be the first day of actual training and evaluation, and it was going to be a long one.

~

            I hope you all enjoyed that little peek into Wolfsbane’s first day as a rookie hunter. Join us next week for another short story—this one about the decision to put Wolfsbane on Ren Ascot’s team. Until then, you can check out the Star-Runner Chronicles books on Amazon.com (and all international versions of the site, print and Kindle ebook editions available), check for updates and random stuff on my Twitter page, or get a little more insight into my personality on Pintrest. If you’ve already read the books, I suggest heading over to Amazon, Goodreads, or Shelfari to drop a rating or review (I’d love to hear from you *painfully heavy hint*). And, if you like my books or this blog, be sure to share them with your friends too.

            Also, if you’re a Sonic the Hedgehog fan, be sure to check out my Fan Work’s Spot over the next few weeks as I release the first five Acts of my Alternate Universe fic Sonic Hyuminz. The first act is up now, and the second will be up Tuesday, March 31st! If you like funky new twists on well-known series, you’ll probably enjoy it.

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About starrunnerworld

I'm an independent author who specializes in Fantasy and Sci-Fi.
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