Loyalties

Spoiler Alert: The following story occurs at around the same time as the final chapters of Wolfie Star-Runner Plays with Hellfire and contains some spoilers for the first book. Reader discretion is advised.

Augusta 28, 1043 P.W.D.

            A warm summer breeze blew in from the south as Orin Knash stood before the IWHA District Headquarters in Bevelle, ruffling the bangs of his short black hair while he adjusted his glasses. It had been quite a while since he had been to this imposing stone building, with its façade of magnificent stone arches, tall spires topped with spiky cast iron stars, and the statues of founding members tucked into the niches lining the outer walls, staring blank-eyed and ominously at him. The twenty-one-year-old would not have been here at all, except…

            “Hey, Orin! Long time no see, man!” a familiar male voice suddenly called from his left. He looked up only to see a flaxen-haired young man about five feet, nine inches tall with a pair of pistols holstered at his sides trotting up to him.

            “Ah, Blake. So, they’ve called you in too, it seems,” Orin replied calmly. “Let me guess, you have an appointment with the Deputy Director as well…?”

            Blake started and blinked in surprise, then said, “Yeah…at three o’ clock…Why?”

            “So do I, at exactly the same time,” Orin said, turning to the building once again. “This is no coincidence, then. We will likely meet with Emily as well.”

            “Emily too? You sure?” Blake asked.

            “Yes, quite positive,” Orin said. “Well, come on. We shouldn’t keep Deputy Director Azmodius waiting.” And, with that, he began making his way toward the enormous steel double doors, with Blake quickly falling into step beside him.

            “But, what makes you think that?” Blake continued as they entered the lobby of the building, its towering columns and high, vaulted ceiling towering over them as their boots clicked upon the gleaming white marble floors. “I mean, not unless you think this has anything to do with…?” He did not need to utter another word; the concern in his blue eyes and voice said it all.

            Orin nodded. “Yes, that is exactly what I was thinking as well,” he replied coolly, despite being quite worried himself. “That Wolfsbane—always getting himself into these foolish situations…”

            Wolfsbane Bendis had been one of Orin’s rookie squad mates, along with Blake Hardcort and Emily Vardell. Even in the old days he had been something of a magnet for trouble, always the source of whatever mad side-story wound up accompanying their day-to-day activities—whether it was a dangerous mission or a routine trip to the store for a gallon of milk. Shy and odd, but a highly skilled fighter with a strong sense of justice, Wolfsbane was also strangely difficult to dislike. Then again, he was wild-aligned. People of that elemental alignment were always charismatic despite any quirks or awkwardness that should rightfully have made them annoying or embarrassing to be around…A “lovable dork” as both Blake and Wolfsbane’s own sister, Flood, had described him.

            The only people who seemed immune to his natural charm were Ren Ascot and his despicable gang of bullies. Orin, for one, was quite glad to have heard of Helga, Vale, and Monty’s untimely demises. Why, he had even allowed himself to crack a smile. He had never believed the part about Wolfsbane’s self-termination, however, and was quite relieved when his parents’ counter report and all of those nasty rumors about Mr. Ascot began to fly…Rumors he had remorselessly spread and added to.

            “Yeah. It’s good to see that’s one thing about him that’s stayed the same,” Blake chuckled as they reached the front desk. They showed the receptionist their hunter’s I.D.’s and she waved them through toward the hallway which housed the elevator to the third floor. Things were quite silent between the two of them until they stepped into the empty elevator, at which point Blake continued, “Hey. You think he was really bitten, or was that just a lie?”

            Orin sighed. “Why ask me this, when you and I both already understand his nature?” he replied. Blake pestered him for dodging the question, but he dared not say more. For all he knew, that elevator might have been under surveillance…and he despised being spied on.

            The elevator stopped with a high-pitched chime and the doors opened to the crimson-carpeted and expensively decorated hall outside of the Deputy Director’s office. As they exited the elevator, Orin spied a familiar young woman sitting on an upholstered bench beside the office door. She was quite lovely, with long brown hair pulled back into a high-slung ponytail with a hot pink ribbon and big, beautiful brown eyes with long, thick lashes. Her black T-shirt was cut just low enough to show the barest peek of her cleavage—just enough to be sexy, but not so much as to be unflatteringly revealing—and two bandoliers of throwing knives were strapped across her chest, crossing over each other in the shape of an X.

            “Yo! Emily! Orin said you’d probably be here too!” Blake greeted cheerfully as they made their way over.

            Emily hastily looked up from her boots, then narrowed her eyes and pursed her lips in disapproval at them. “What the Hells are you two doing here?” she asked. “I don’t have time to mess around, I’ve got a meeting with Deputy Director Azmodius a—”

            “At three o’ clock?” Orin interrupted with a quirk of his eyebrow as he once again adjusted his glasses.

            “Yeah! How did you know that?!” Emily cried. “You been spying on me or something?”

            “No, we just happen to have the same appointment,” Blake said casually. “You know what that means, right?”

            But, before Emily could answer, the grandfather clock across from the bench struck three and the door to the Deputy Director’s office opened, revealing the black-clad form of its occupant.

            Deputy Director Azmodius was a middle-aged seraph with white hair which was cropped into a neat bob with straight bangs which framed an effeminately handsome face, grey-blue eyes, and the pale complexion of a porcelain doll. The two pairs of feathery white wings upon the fae’s back were folded close to his body, just barely peeking out from behind his shoulders and sides. All of his pale features and his rail-thin physique mixed oddly, unsettlingly, with his jet black business suit, dress shirt, shoes, and tie, making him appear more ghost-like than anything. Deputy Director Azmodius smiled warmly at them as he opened the door…a smile which managed only to chill Orin to be bone. ‘Why are the top brass always so disturbingly artificial?’ he thought, suppressing a shudder.

            “Ah, so good to see that all of you could make it!” Deputy Director Azmodius said in a friendly tone which carried the same faint undertone of falseness as his smile. “Orin Knash, Emily Vardell, and Blake Hardcort. I haven’t seen you since your promotion ceremony! It still amazes me how quickly the shorter-lived races grow from children to adults!”

            Emily stood and saluted as she replied, “It’s good to see you again too, Sir, and it’s an honor to have been called here to meet with you.”

            ‘Speak for yourself,’ Orin thought, keeping his face neutral despite his desire to scowl in disgust at this man.

            “Thank you, my dear, but enough with the formalities,” the Deputy Director said. “Please, all of you, step into my office. We have a matter of great urgency to discuss.”

            Orin and the others followed him into his office, a large room lined with bookshelves and expensive pieces of art and antique furniture. At the very end of the room, right behind his desk, was a large stained glass window depicting the death of the Spartan warrior Thunder Bendis at the hands of Azmiroth Diamondback at Inixx Hill during the War of Destruction. That was a great victory for the Templars and a crushing defeat for the Free Beings, so it was not at all surprising that such a scene would be displayed in the office of a high-ranking IWHA official. Under the circumstances, it also felt terribly ominous…Thunder Bendis was one of Wolfsbane’s direct ancestors, after all.

            The Deputy Director sat down in his high-backed, plush, black leather desk chair and motioned for the three to take a seat in the less ostentatious, but no less plush, black leather chairs set before the elegantly carved mahogany desk. “There we are, all comfy,” he said, still in that faux-amiable tone. “Now, on to business. You three must be bursting with curiosity over why I’ve called you all here.”

            “Not really,” Orin said coolly. “The reason could not be more obvious, actually. Our rookie squad mate, Wolfsbane Bendis, is at the center of a storm of controversy concerning his current status. Living or dead, human or werewolf, retiree or traitor…it’s got the entire werewolf hunter community in quite the uproar at this point. Naturally, you called us—his old squad mates—in to take part in the investigation. Am I correct in assuming that this is the case, Mister Deputy Director?”

            For a fraction of a second, Deputy Director Azmodius’ affable smile wavered and a spark of disgust flashed across his eyes. Then, just as quickly, the mask was repaired and he replied, “Astute deduction as always, my lad. We already have an internal affairs team looking into the case, but we have also decided that bringing in investigators who are…a little bit closer to Mr. Bendis may be useful. After all, the three of you served with him for two years as rookie hunters. Surely it would not be very difficult for you to track him down and determine whether he is still human…or if he has become one of those monsters.”

            “Well, yeah, I guess that makes sense,” Blake said, leaning back casually in his seat. “I mean, who better than his closest buddies to send to check something like this out. If you want my expert opinion, though, Sir, I don’t think he’s the type to go wolf. Ren’s always been a bully, on the other hand, and pretty self-centered and spiteful to boot. I’ll bet anything Wolfsbane just decided to switch careers and Ren got all pissy about it. Still, it’ll be fun to catch up with him. Knowing Wolfsbane, he’s probably already got himself into some wild situation or another.”

            Emily nodded. “Yeah, I always thought being just a plain old adventurer suited him better than being a hunter too,” she said. “He’s always been kind of soft, and just being near him seems to be like inviting all sorts of chaos into your life! It’s like trouble follows him everywhere!”

            “Yes, and now, it seems, that trouble affects not just those in close proximity to him, but the entire IWHA as well,” The Deputy Director sighed, the concern in his face and voice just as subtly false as his friendliness. “Your mission, lady and gentlemen, is to seek out Wolfsbane Bendis. If he is human, he will be allowed to live. If he has become a beast, however, he is to be terminated with extreme prejudice. Either way, the results of your mission are to be reported to me as soon as you have carried out your orders. Is that clear?”

            “Yes, Sir,” they replied in unison.

            “Good. Then you are dismissed,” Deputy Director Azmodius said. “Good luck to you all.”

§§§

            The three exited the office, and subsequently the building in silence. Once they exited the Regional Headquarters, their only conversation consisted of deciding upon a place to grab a bite to eat and discuss their mission…which ended up being a small tavern on the west side of the city. It wasn’t a fancy place, and not the type of establishment that one would take the family either. Instead, it was the kind of noisy dive that adventurers, mercenaries, assassins, and bandits regularly frequented. The smell of tobacco and marijuana smoke hung in the air, and beings of many different races sat around round wooden tables or at the bar, eating, drinking, laughing, and arguing in tones both boisterous and hushed.

            Orin, Blake, and Emily took a seat at a table in a far corner of the establishment, just two tables away from the bar, and ordered a round of hard cyder and three orders of the house special—a spicy gumbo with crawfish and river squid. After their food and drink were delivered and the tavern maid had gone off to check on another group of customers, the silence was finally broken.

            “This is not good,” Orin sighed, his lips pursed in concern as he stared down into his gumbo.

            “You can’t say that until you taste it, Orin,” Emily said, her mouth already full of food. “This is actually pretty tasty! River squid is pretty hard to get right, you know.”

            “No, I don’t mean the food,” he said, “I mean the situation with Wolfsbane. His life is in very real danger.”

            Emily took a swig of her cider and said, “So, you don’t believe that he’s gone wolf either, huh?”

            At that, Blake burst out laughing. “Seriously, Em? If he’s still alive, there’s no doubt in my mind he’s gone wolf!”

            “But…Wait, you told the director—”

            “A big fat lie! Really, Emily, which is more like Wolfsbane to you? Sitting by and watching his team be sacrificed without a fight, or tackling a raging psychopath with nothing but pure grit and a hunting knife?”

            “Ascot had broken him down pretty bad, though,” Emily replied. “I mean, the Wolfsbane we fought beside would totally have done that, but…people change.”

            “He’s right, Emily,” Orin said, looking up and sliding his glasses up the bridge of his nose with his index finger. “We all know that Wolfsbane, even at his most frightened, is a fighter. We also know that his sense of self-preservation is strong, he has always had his doubts about the Code…and then there are his natural lupine tendencies.”

            At that, Emily glared at Orin, her eyes blazing like the fires of the Fifth Hell. “You shut your mouth right now,” she demanded angrily. “Wolfsbane was always weird, sure, but to even suggest he’s a filthy mutt on the inside…”

            “It’s not a suggestion. All three of us know he’s always had some pretty high-level lycanthropic tells, even when he was human,” Blake said with a shrug. “I mean, remember that time he got pinned by that one werewolf…and Wolfsbane freakin’ growled at him!”

            “Not to mention how he would occasionally twitch like a dog in his sleep,” Orin added, “and how restless fidgety he would always become during the full moon. Face it, Emily, as much as you detest werewolves…one of your closest friends has always been one.”

            “That’s enough!” Emily cried. “You don’t know what you’re talking about! Wolfsbane Bendis was born a perfectly normal human and if he was stupid enough to get bitten and become a damn mutt instead of killing himself like he should have…then I’ll slit his throat myself!”

            Orin sighed and shook his head. “Then you will have to kill me first,” he said plainly.

            “And me too,” Blake agreed.

            “You two would honestly defend him if he became one of those…those things?!”

            “If he has been turned, it is highly unlikely that he has killed anyone,” Orin said, “and no doubt his uncle will have arranged for someone to teach him how to handle his powers properly.”

            “And besides, Wolfsbane’s not the kind to haul off and turn into a murderer just because he’s a werewolf anyway,” Blake said with a nod. “He’s more the type to lock himself up or stay as far from people as possible if he thinks he’s really dangerous. I mean, remember how long it took him to stop hesitating or throwing up on low-level missions? He’s got no stomach for hurting people he feels are innocent.”

            Emily turned away from them and smiled sadly. “No, the human called Wolfsbane Bendis definitely hated to kill anyone who hadn’t actually hurt anyone themself,” Emily replied, then her expression darkened once again, “…But if he’s been turned, the monster that’s taken his place would rip a child to shreds in a heartbeat! If he’s become one of those creatures, go ahead and defend him if that’s where your loyalties lie…but I’ll kill all three of you if that’s what it takes.”

            “Then we’ll knock you out and tie you to a chair if that’s what it takes,” Blake replied with an impish smile. “Isn’t that right, Orin?”

            At that, Orin couldn’t help but smile slightly and let a short huff of a laugh escape his lips. “Yes, quite,” he said. “Allow your hatred to destroy our friendship if you wish, but we will simply keep you prisoner until you come around.”

            All in all, it did feel good to be teamed up with Blake and Emily once again. To be sure, Emily’s hatred of werewolves had still not abated, even after having finally slain the woman who murdered her adoptive family almost three years ago. Still, once the subject of their conversation began to shift away from their current mission, it had begun to feel just like old times. Really, the only thing missing was Ritrian scolding them for arguing amongst themselves and Wolfsbane trying too hard to seem cool…or, at least, normal.

            ‘Yes, it will be good to see him again too,’ Orin thought as he took a sip of his cider. ‘Don’t get yourself killed before we meet again, you idiot…’

~

            Uh-oh, looks like some real drama is going on behind our hero’s back! Join us next week for a new Monster Manual article! Until then, check out more from the Short Stories section of this blog or download the free sample of The Rebirth and Awakening of Wolfie Star-Runner (.mobi for Kindle, .epub for basically everything else) or Wolfie Star-Runner Plays with Hellfire (.mobi, .epub) and see what all the fuss is about. Also, you can find me on Twitter at @DanielleVFreman for…uh, I don’t even know what to call it anymore. Thanks for reading and hopefully I’ll see you next week!

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About starrunnerworld

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