Read Monster Hunter Alpha-ARC Online
Authors: Larry Correia
Tags: #Urban Life, #Fantasy, #Fiction, #Contemporary, #General
It smelled of musk. He was surrounded by huge carnivorous animals. He knew that if he tried to get up they’d attack. Two of them began to wrestle and snap at each other over a severed arm. That made the girl smile.
“Who…who are you?” he managed to whisper.
“The pack,” she answered simply, then went back to gnawing on the bone.
Since it was dark, and the girl was coated in dried blood, her hair a matted tangle of dust and filth, it took him a minute to recognize her as one of the checkout girls from the Value Sense Grocery. She had always been friendly as could be, with a ready smile and a good attitude. If he remembered right, she’d even been a Copper Lake cheerleader a few years back. “You’re the Langleys’ girl, aren’t you?”
Ethan understood that the thing squatting there amongst the terrifying beasts wasn’t the friendly local girl he’d known. No longer human, she was something wild, feral, and dangerous. “What’re you going to do to me?”
“If it were up to me, you’d already be in my belly,” she replied. “So shut up. The witch’s things are still searching. They don’t need to breathe like we do down there, but don’t you worry, we’ll be gone soon. The Alpha said they almost had it.”
The girl was talking crazy. “Please, I’ve got a wife and kids. Let me go,” Ethan begged.
“Humans are such whiny little bitches.” There was a clanking noise from the shaft. Her head snapped around, and she peered into the darkness of the entrance. “He’s coming. You better not piss him off, or you’ll regret it.” The girl took a few fearful steps back and disappeared into the darkness.
Ethan tried to make himself look as small and nonthreatening as possible. The closest animal was sitting only a few feet away, crouched on its hind legs, its torso upright. One of its hairy forearms was sitting in the beam of light, and Ethan realized that it had fingers with pointed nails like black claws, but they were
Not a paw. Fingers.
Every creature in the room moved, long heads shifting toward the shaft entrance at the same time. Their heads dipped submissively. Ethan couldn’t see what they were looking at, but suddenly there was a man’s voice in the darkness.
“The diggers have found it.”
All of the animals howled in unison. The sound reverberated through Number Six. Ethan curled into the fetal position.
The man got close enough to the light that Ethan could just make out his silhouette. He was wearing a big black coat and wide-brimmed hat. His face remained in shadows, but his eyes seemed to glow like the girl’s. He had a mud-caked box in this hands. The man got closer, put the box down, and then sat cross-legged on the dusty floor behind it.
“Who are you?” the man asked, noticing Ethan for the first time.
His mouth was so dry it hurt to talk. “The night watchman,” he managed to answer.
“Oh…I thought I recognized you. I took the tour once.” There was a long sound of inhalation. The stranger was smelling him. “You’ve been down below. You left your fear down there before, during the cave-in. I could taste it on the walls. You knew Kerkonen?”
“I knew him,” Ethan croaked. What did old Aksel have to do with this?
The big black hat nodded up and down. One hand came to rest on the box. “It can’t be destroyed. I know he must have tried. Can’t break it, burn it, or melt it. They don’t build things like this anymore. That’s why he tried to hide it. He was scared of someone like me coming along. He thought if he buried it deep enough, I wouldn’t find it. He buried it in the deepest hole on Earth and then filled it with water. It was a brilliant try. I’ll give him that. It took me years to find this place.”
It was a stainless-steel lockbox. The stranger broke the clasp and rusty padlock off with one hand. The box creaked as it opened for the first time in years. The creatures all crowded in closer to see. Ethan could feel their body heat.
The stranger lifted a rotting cloth from the box. Water drizzled out to puddle with the blood on the floor. “Behold, my children…” The stranger was eager. The rags fell apart. Something silver gleamed in the light; a chain spilled away from it and swung. The man’s smile was visible in the dark. His teeth were too sharp. “The amulet of Koschei the Deathless.”
The excitement could be felt coming from the horrible creatures as the man removed his hat and placed the chain over his head. He shuddered when the amulet hit his chest. The golden eyes closed. The pack drew even closer. It was almost as if the animals were holding their breath, waiting to see what would happen.
The man began to mutter under his breath, as if reciting a memorized prayer. The guttural language was unfamiliar. The prayer grew in intensity. The creatures let out fearful whimpers and dipped their heads further. The air seemed to bend around them. The light from the flashlight flickered and died.
The terrifying stranger finished in English. “Let the heavens cry their tears of ice. Let the rivers flow with blood.” He exhaled slowly and reopened his eyes. Gold had turned to bright, glowing red. “Let the great hunt begin.”
Ethan Pedde’s screams died in his throat as several sets of jaws ripped him apart.
* * *
The Hum came out of nowhere.
Earl had to grab the bar to keep from falling off the stool. One hand convulsively knocked his dinner onto the floor. The plate shattered. The sudden clatter got the other patron’s attention.
Something was wrong. Terribly wrong. For a split second he thought the change had come on him. Visions of blood; he’d kill everyone there. They’d never have a chance.
Aino’s hand landed on his shoulder. “You all right, buddy?”
Teeth gritted together, Earl tried to steady himself while his ears rang and all the hair on his arms stood on end. He shrugged the hand off. It was like the days leading up to the full moon had been compressed into a single moment with the density of a brick and then smashed over his head.
Luckily, the sensation was already passing. The Hum was fading to normal levels.
“I’m okay. Give me a second.” He took a deep breath.
What the hell was that?
Earl shoved himself away from the bar and took a few halting steps, swaying, dizzy. The other patrons were staring at him. Beads of sweat were rolling down his clammy skin.
The annoying waiter approached. “Everything okay, mister?”
“You need a doctor?” Henry asked.
“Naw…I’m good. Gotta go clear my head. Fresh air.” Earl got his wallet out, pulled out two hundreds and stuffed them into the waiter’s shirt pocket. “Sorry about the mess.” Head still swimming, Earl staggered for the exit.
Outside, the sky broke open and snow thundered down. The howling of wolves could just be heard over the howling of the wind.
* * *
Heather started to form a response to Temple about how she wasn’t going to get lectured to by a guy in his twenties about her doughnut addiction, when Joe Buckley groaned loudly and startled them both. The machines by the bed beeped wildly. Buckley suddenly jerked, his face contorting in a grimace of pain. “Get the nurse,” Heather ordered. Buckley gasped and opened his eyes. He appeared to be in terrible pain. He looked around in confusion, then let out a blood-curdling scream. “Go!”
Temple sped from the room. Heather went to Buckley’s side. “Joe, can you hear me?” Buckley began thrashing, his hands curled into fists and drawn up to his chest. He tried to sit up, but screamed again and fell back, only to try to rise again. There was a cracking noise, and Heather had no idea where it came from, but she could have sworn that it had come from
of him. Scared that he was going to rip open his stitches, Heather put her hands on Buckley’s shoulders and tried to restrain him. “Joe! Calm down!”
Suddenly, Buckley fell limp. The heart monitor began to sound a high-pitched alarm.
Buckley was looking right through her. Dead.
“Oh God. Not you, too, Joe…”
Then he blinked.
Veins grew large beneath the skin of his forehead and neck. A sudden heat emanated from his body, so intense that it felt like his flesh was about to burst into flames. Beads of sweat materialized and flowed freely down Joe’s face. He screamed and kept screaming until he ran out of air; then he gulped more in and screamed again. Saliva flew from his lips and hit her in the face, but she still tried to hold him down. She’d never seen someone in so much pain. “Help! We need a doctor!” she shouted out the doorway.
When she looked back down, the whites of Joe’s eyes had seemingly filled with blood from broken vessels. His pupils had turned a metallic gold. The screaming stopped, but then it was replaced with desperate panting. With a shock, she realized that his skin was actually burning her hands. She gasped and let go, backing away as Buckley’s back arched, lifting most of his body off the bed. Other machines began squealing madly as tubes and sensors were ripped out. He kicked violently, the blankets flew across the room, there were more crackling noises, like bones breaking, and Buckley’s body slammed back down.
Buckley looked at her, panting, foam coming from his lips, and gasped, “Kill me, please. Hurry.” His voice was too deep. His teeth were bleeding.
Temple returned with Dr. Glenn and a nurse right at his heels. The doctor was shouting orders. Heather raised her hands and covered her mouth, backing away slowly until her back met the wall. Mad with pain, Buckley’s fists unclenched, and he began tearing at his gown with fingernails that were far too long.
* * *
Nikolai was driving down the snowy highway, cursing his bad luck and planning his next move, when the surge struck. It rolled over him, through him, like a tidal wave. It was as if the moon was suddenly there, not just calling him but screaming in his ear. He managed to gasp “No!” as his blood ignited.
the Tvar screamed inside.
He tried to fight the transformation. His muscles locked up and he helplessly jammed the accelerator to the floor. A spastic twitch cranked the wheel to the side. The BMW spun directly into the oncoming headlights of the other lane. An orange shape was hurtling at them in a billowing plume of dirty snow.
,” Nikolai muttered as his body unclenched.
The snowplow’s blade slammed into the car with a thunderous bang. The front end crumpled in two directions. Glass and metal filled the compartment as the world shifted into a sudden reverse and the BMW was lifted from the road. Nikolai, not wearing his seat belt, was hurled through the windshield.
* * *
Earl stood in the parking lot, face lifted toward the sky, eyes closed, open mouth filling with whipping snow, and he breathed it in, filling his lungs with ice. The cold cleansed him, cooled his burning skin. Something was terribly wrong. In all the years since he’d been cursed, he’d never felt anything like that.
The moon’s humming was still there. It was always there. He could feel it to the core of his soul. It waxed and waned, more regular than clockwork. But now there was another Hum, an unnatural vibration, and it was coming from something other than the moon. Earl lowered his arms and opened his eyes. The wind ripped at his coat. A full-on blizzard had sprung out of nowhere. He turned in a slow circle, watching as the lights of the town were blotted out of existence by the shielding snow.
The new Hum, the false moon, it called to him. He could feel it. He could follow it like a beacon. There was something else that he could sense, too, much closer. He turned toward the squat concrete shape of the nearby hospital.
…In a crowded public building packed with innocents. “Damn you to hell, Nikolai. What’ve you done?”
Investigating the new false moon would have to wait. Earl reached under his coat for the comforting shape of the Smith & Wesson 625 holstered on his right hip. The .45 was loaded with 230-grain MHI-issue silver bullets, and he guessed that he’d be needing them real quick. He set off at a run.
“Impressive,” the padre told me the next morning. “Even for a werewolf. Especially for one so young.”
I woke up inside the
carcass, using its liver as a pillow. I was absolutely stuffed, stunk like fish blood and oil, was extremely sore, and human. I stumbled out of the canopy of ribs to go wash off in the surf. The priest followed me. I asked him if he was an expert on werewolves as I used sand to scour the ink from my skin.
“Why, yes, actually. I am.”
I paused and sniffed the air. He wasn’t like me. That was obvious. “Keep talking.”
“My name is Father Santiago. I was not always a simple parish priest. As a young man, I held a special assignment at the Vatican. Were you aware that the church has its own group of Hunters?”
For the record, I was raised Southern Baptist at my mother’s insistence, but me and religion hadn’t ever paid each other much mind. There were other rival organizations, even back then, but we’d never run into any churchy ones. Everybody we’d ever competed with had been in it for the money, same as us. “Makes sense, I suppose.”
“Your organization started in 1895. Ours started in twelfth century,” he continued. “I was an archivist, so I know a few things about werewolves.”
I betrayed my lack of schooling. “What’s an archivist?”
“Someone who keeps records. But as I was saying, I know werewolves. For example, I know that you are certainly an oddity.”
“Most would be sitting in that
’s belly, but not quite so comfortably as you were. I do believe that
should be digesting you, not the other way around. Also, most young werewolves are extremely erratic and easily provoked into rages, and you have not even attempted to kill me once.”
“Eh…I’ve been busy. I figured I’d get around to it.”
Father Santiago was carrying his shoes to keep from filling them with sand. He put his toes in the water. “What if I were to tell you that I know of a few cases in history where a lycanthrope with similar strength of character was able to control their curse enough to live a long and productive life?”