Jennifer rubbed her hands as she walked. It hadn’t felt cold when she was just walking between her dorm and the dining hall, but the slight chill in the air seemed to be building up as she and the others walked.
The semi-official park along the Rappahanock’s banks where the murder occurred was within walking distance from campus in the same way that student parking as within walking distance from campus. That is to say that it was physically possible to walk there, but neither comfortable, nor enjoyable to do so.
No one else was complaining though, so Jennifer kept her own mouth shut on the subject.
Elle, of course, had happily pulled ahead of the group, chattering about her many theories about werewolves to Brutus, who was curled up in her coat pocket.
Where Elle gravitated to the head of the group, Jeremy Silvers, the only male among them, was lagging behind. The first sign of cool air, let alone cold had him bundling himself up in a thick, padded black coat that made him look comically fat, along with a weird pull-over hat that had a built-in piece of fabric that he could pull over his mouth and nose like a scarf. Jennifer had no idea how he was able to walk and play wherever video game that was so engrossing him while also wearing heavy gloves.
That left Jennifer walking beside the last of their little quartet, Theresa. Short, blonde and bespectacled, the girl defined mousy. Specifically ‘quiet as a’. She was wearing her default expression, looking as if she wanted to say something but wasn’t sure if she should.
Accustomed to having to coax those uncertain words from her friend, Jennifer took it upon herself to do so now. “Any thoughts one what we’re getting ourselves into?”
Theresa considered carefully, then shrugged. “It could be anything. There are several kinds of werewolves in the book. There are also several kinds of wolf-like monsters and spells to transform.” She went silent for a moment, then added, “We also can’t assume the Book is always right. This could be a feral dog or rabid wolf.”
“Well that’s fine.” Elle had turned around and stopped walking, waiting for them to come to her. “I know how to cure rabies.”
“Oh. Well that…” Jennifer blinked, then looked at her friend. “Wait, you what?”
Elle just smiled and put her hands in her pockets. “’To Break The Madness of Beasts’. It’s a spell I came across in one of those translated Hungarian books Occult gave me. I checked it on the internet: the symptoms of ‘The Madness of Beasts’ is totally the same thing as rabies. I was thinking we should find a way to amp it up and just cure all the rabies in the county.”
Two hair-brained ideas, one complete gem. That was Elle. Jennifer wouldn’t deny the gems when she heard them. “I think that’s worth working on. Werewolf first though—if it is a werewolf. It might even be one of those techno-dogs that attacked the Descendants for all we know.”
“I don’t see why we’re not just listening to the book.” said Jeremy, finally joining the conversation. “It’s a magic book with a mind of its own—I don’t see why it would just make random guesses.”
“Because it does have a mind of its own?” Jennifer suggested. “I mean, let’s be totally honest: the fact that it deletes and adds stuff whenever it wants is kind of creepy to start with. The idea that it might infallible somehow makes that creepiness even worse.”
Elle nodded sharply. “She’s right, Jerm: it could be an evil book for all we know.”
“I didn’t say that.” Jennifer said.
“You didn’t not say it.”
For a moment, Jennifer just stared at her friend’s bright eyes. To tell if Elle was joking or not. It didn’t seem like she was this time. Worse, it occurred to Jennifer that considering that it was a magic book with a mind of its own, that is might be malevolent wasn’t that big of a leap.
She shook her head. “Let’s… just deal with one magical problem at a time, okay?”
The grin from Elle proved that she was appeased. “Sure!” she chirped. “Hey, do you think my animal magic will work on a werewolf? I mean, I guess if they can turn into a wolf, there’s no question, but what happens when they turn back into a person? And if they can turn into a man-wolf, does that mean my magic will only half work?”
It went on the like that as they followed the sidewalk until it disappeared after a turn off past a gas station and Chinese restaurant. Just over a short bridge, they came within sight of the river.
The ‘park’ was pretty much just a gravel turnoff at the head of a short forest track leading down to the water where people could launch kayaks or just cast fishing lines into the water. The turn off as well as most of the shoulder of the road were clogged by news vans, police cars, and the vehicles of other lookie-loos that turned up at the news of a death by the river.
“I see police tape.” announced Jeremy, craning his neck. “Off the trial… pretty far from anything, really. I don’t think we’re going to get very close to take a look any time soon.”
“Most of us, maybe.” Elle said, letting Brutus out of her pocket so that he could scurry up her arm and onto her shoulder. “But everyone knows that squirrels can’t get arrested for crossing police lines. Brutus can check the crime scene out and I can use a spell to see through his eyes.”
Jennifer looked back toward where at least three police academy recruits wearing fluorescent yellow vests as they searched the woods. One of them had a large ‘K-9’ printed on his vest even if she couldn’t make out his dog from there. “It’s a good idea, Elle, but is that safe for him? You know, with the dogs and all.”
“The scent dogs?” Elle asked, reaching up to scratch Brutus behind the ears. “They’re better trained than to mess with a squirrel when they’re supposed to be working. Thanks for worrying about him though.”
“Oh.” Said Jennifer, “Alright then. Let’s see what he can find out.”
Without anyone asking Theresa slipped the backpack she’d bought with her off and unzipped it. “What do you need for the spell?” She asked Elle.
After months of meeting and working together, no one questioned that yes, Theresa would have whatever they needed for most basic spells. She was the group’s unofficial quartermaster.
Elle came over to kneel next to her in order to help sort through the pack. “Not much: just water, mint, charcoal and a length of string.”
The bottle of water was first out of the pack, followed by an old fishing tackle box with carefully labeled compartments from which Theresa pulled a chunk of charcoal and the string. Finally came what looked like a photo album. Theresa opened it to reveal various leaves pressed into the pages, each one labeled.
“Why do you keep all the herbs and stuff in a scrapbook?” asked Jeremy, peering over her shoulder.
She continued to flip through the pages of pressed leaves. “How else would I store them? Baggies or spice jars would make it look like I’m carrying drugs. This looks like I’m just a biology student interested in botany.” She located a page of spearmint leaves and removed two from the plastic sleeve to give to Elle.
“We’re all crazy clever in the Magi Club.” Elle grinned. From another coat pocket, she took out two stacks of laminated index cards.
One was made up of cards inscribed with sigils linked to her many and sundry marked animals: from groundhogs to birds, racoons, skunks, and bees. As usual, Brutus’s card was at the top of that deck and she plucked it out easily. The other was made up of various hand-drawn magic circles pertaining to spells she knew. All four of them had decks like that now: it was just easier than taking the time to draw the circles unless they absolutely had to be larger circles.
After some fumbling (because Elle had heard of alphabetical order and promptly ignored it), she found the circle card she needed and knelt down on the side of the road.
“You don’t need to read it form the Book?” Jennifer asked.
Elle snorted and smiled up at her friend. “Are you kidding? I do this all the time for fun. I like using it with birds best because the town looks amazing from way up high.” She’d also heard of fictional wizards who treated magic with somber study and complete seriousness—and was having none of it.
She took Jennifer returning the smile as permission to carry on and started by crushing the mint leaves and charcoal together in the center of the magic circle. As she did so, she whispered the incantation; the best translation they could piece together from the original ancient Germanic. It worked, but there was no way of telling if it was working exactly as it was meant to originally.
The only indication that something magical was happening was that the black ink drawings that made up the circle shifted and crawled subtly across the surface of the card. If they hadn’t been looking for it, all four of them would have missed it.
When the incantation ended, Elle motioned to Brutus. “Okay, Brutus, hop down and give me your paw.”
Brutus obeyed, bounding off her shoulder. Once on the ground, her turned, sat on his haunches, and offered his right paw. Elle rewarded him with a pat on the head, then looped one end of the string loosely around the presented appendage, doing the same with the other end around her little finger.
With her free hand, Elle poured just enough water over the coal and mint concoction to turn it into a paste. She dipped a finger into it and used it to draw a wavy line over her right eye and another, smaller on above Brutus’s. Finally, she spoke a final word of the incantation; one that they couldn’t find a translation for.
Again, there was little or no outward sign that a spell had been cast, but Elle nodded and unlooped the string. “Okay, Brutus, go take a look for me.” The squirrel turned and struck off toward the police line.
For her part, Elle walked a bit father into the woods and took a seat against a tree. “Now we just have to wait.”
Jennifer looked to the others. “Anything else you guys can think of?”
“Nothing magical.” Theresa was packing the spell components back into her backpack. “But we could see what the news says about this.”
“Like if they still think it was an animal.” offered Jeremy. He already had his palmtop out again, this time tuning to one of the news provider sites. It didn’t take long for him to find the story; a gruesome death, especially local gruesome death, was catnip to news organizations.
His face fell as he read. “Aw man… this sucks.”
“What?” Jennifer went to him so she could read over his shoulder.
“I know this guy’s sister.” said Jeremy, shaking his head softly. “We’re in the same Econ class, did a couple of projects. Angel Dancescu—her brother is… was Garth Dancescu. It says he’s a senior that transferred in last year. Jesus, this is awful. Do you think I should call her?”
Jennifer frowned, putting a hand on his shoulder. “Maybe not just yet, Jer. I’m not sure she’d appreciate knowing that we’re looking into her brother’s death on suspicion of it being supernatural in nature. I’m not saying don’t call to give your condolences, just don’t tell her what we think is going on.”
“Uh…” That came from Elle, drawing everyone’s attention. “I think we can confirm that this wasn’t just a wolf.”
Elle shivered despite herself. “Because wolves don’t get the big? Like Brutus found some prints and stuff down by the water and this is one seriously big, bad wolf. As in bear sized. And it’s strong: one of them took a swipe at a tree and tore claw marks in it bigger than my hand.”
Jeremy’s eyes widened. “What do you mean ‘more than one’?”
“Just what I said. The prints are smaller than the paw that gouged those marks in the tree.”
“Wolves are pack hunters.” Theresa pointed out, “Why wouldn’t werewolves be the same way?”
A headache was starting to form between Jennifer’s eyes. “Great. So we might have a whole pack of slavering monsters killing people. I hope Occult can join us soon because this is way out of our league.”
Theresa pursed her lips in thought before deciding to voice what was on her mind. “But why did they kill him?”
“Because they’re werewolves?” suggested Jeremy. “It’s kind of what they do.”
The blonde shook her head. “That doesn’t make sense. Magic or not, it’s still rare for someone or something to kill ‘just because’. According to the Book, most werewolves still have a human or lupine mind—neither of those are prone to kill at random. Even serial killers have a reason and a pattern.”
Jennifer tapped her chin with a nail, seeing where her friend was going. “You’ve got a point, Theresa: we can’t assume that werewolves in real life are like movie monsters. It wasn’t for food because he wasn’t eaten. Most of them are intelligent and sapient, so whatever happened to Garth Dancescu probably isn’t a random kill… but a murder.”
“Just like on TV.” Elle chimed in. “We need to figure out who had means—in this case lycanthropy—motive, and opportunity to figure out who did it.”
“That would be the job of the police.” said Theresa, slinging her backpack over one shoulder.
Elle shook her head. “Sure, if there weren’t werewolves involved. How many of those guys do you think pack silver bullets? Hell, how many do you think will laugh at us if we tell them that silver bullets and wolfsbane would probably be a good idea?”
An uneasy feeling roiled in Jennifer’s stomach. She didn’t want to agree, but at the same time, she knew it was true: no one was going to believe there were werewolves in Fredericksburg unless one rampaged through the shops at Central Park.
“I think she’s right, guys.” she finally said. “The police won’t know what they’re up against and they won’t believe it until it’s possibly too late. If we don’t get involved, it might make things worse for everyone.” Jeremy and Theresa didn’t look completely convinced—mostly they just looked scared.
“We’re not going to fight these werewolves.” She assured them. “That’s for Occult or maybe all the Descendants to do. What we need to do is search for proof we can give the police and more information on exactly what kind of werewolves we’re looking at. Unfortunately, I can only think of one place to start…”
Jeremy nodded solemnly. “Angel. She can at least tell us why someone might want to kill Garth. We’re going to have to be really really sensitive though. I mean, her brother just died and even with as little as I know her, I know they were close.”
“How about you and Theresa take care of that?” Jennifer suggested.
“What about me?” asked Elle. “I can do the detective thing too, ya know? I’ve taken two years of philosophy, so I’m really good at logic.”
Folding her arms to warm herself up, Jennifer nodded. “I know, Elle. That’s why you’ve got the most important job of all: talking to the witnesses”
The curly-haired girl blinked in confusion. “Witnesses? Say what? I thought no one was around when this happened.”
Jennifer waved a hand casually around at the forest. “No humans were around, but I’m willing to bet that some of the local wildlife might have seen, smelled, or heard something.”
To Be Continued…
Landon Porter is the author of The Descendants and Rune Breaker. Follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni or sign up for his newsletter.
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