Whiteout – Chapter 1

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Werewolves Don’t Howl

We should have brought matches. The thought rang through Nick’s head clear as a bell, even after everything else had become a frozen blur. James sat beside him, panting on a rock. His boyish hair was slick with sweat and his parka was crusted with a fresh coat of frost. Should have brought matches and should have left the kid behind. Nick had never liked partners; more often than not, they would just slow him down or haunt him in between benders with memories of their death.

Six months prior, Nick had run into an eager undergrad who had drunkenly spouted off about cryptozoology. A few silver bullets and a modicum of training later, James had become his apprentice. Nick was still amazed that even after seeing the uglier side of the world, James managed to fight off the cynicism of it well. Despite being half-frozen in a blizzard, and likely five minutes away from a horrible fate uncomfortably similar to becoming a popsicle, James managed to keep a positive, albeit sarcastic, attitude.

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     “Hold on, where were you?” Winston asked, taking a sip of his tea.

Nick, on the other hand was swilling ice around the bottom of his empty glass, wondering when the butler would be by to bring refills. “If you would wait a minute, I’ll tell you,” Nick said with slight irritation. “I’ve got plenty of other jobs that don’t involve me re-hashing painful emotional memories to old men in their parlors.” This was untrue. Even after the encounter with the yeti, very few letters had come through asking for help. While most people in the monster hunting community had heard tell of the story, they also did not believe it.

“Of course, I am so very sorry.” Winston’s words rang false, but were accompanied by the sudden reappearance of a fresh drink on the table next to Nick.

Nick looked to the glass, astonished. “How does he manage that? Let me guess, he used to be a ninja, got tired of the bloodshed and turned to butlery?” Nick took a sip of the fresh glass at his side and nearly gagged on some of the worst whisky he had ever tasted. All the money in the world, and he still drinks this piss?

“Oh yes, he’s quite good,” said Winston, avoiding the question. Nick must have made a sour face at the drink, because Winston waved his hands apologetically. “My apologies for the drink. I like to start at the bottom and work my way up.” He let out a hearty laugh. “Tastes much better in tea,” he said, continuing to laugh.

Nick laughed in spite of his suspicions about the magical butler. “An efficient drinker even amidst opulence, now that I can respect.”

Winston raised his cup, and drained it. “One picks up a few tricks on their way to wealth.” His cheeks flushed a bit with the fresh drink, and he even seemed a little friendlier. “Now, I’m terribly sorry to have interrupted you. Please, continue.”

Winston’s attitude had changed significantly, and it set Nick on edge. Fortunately, the feeling did not last long as the whiskey quickly made its way into his core, warming him from the inside. All traces of misgiving were temporarily erased from his mind. “Yes, where was I?” He drained the highball glass and set it down on the table, loudly, hoping the butler would hear.

After pausing a moment and seeing no sign of him, he continued on. “We had been tracking a werewolf through the mountains for days. Supposed to be a quick job. Silver bullet, bring back the head, in and out; simple as that. But there was one big problem. The villagers lied to us; it wasn’t a damned werewolf.”

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     At midnight, the howling started. Nick and James had made camp in a small cave tucked into the side of the mountain. At that altitude, with the cold wind whipping through their bones, the world grew fuzzy around the edges. For the first few minutes, neither of them were sure they had actually heard howling at all. They simply sat by the glow of the flashlight, hoping that it wasn’t the day they would be sent to meet the gods that their profession so strongly opposed.

“Is that it?” James asked from the corner of the cave. Though he tried to hide it, his body shivered violently and his lips had turned slightly blue, drying out around the edges.

Should have brought matches. We could have burned our clothes. Anything to stave off this damned cold. Matches were dead useful; they started fires, created distractions, and lit his cigarettes. Unfortunately, he had stopped bringing them to avoid the continuation of his “nasty habit” (the words spoken by one of many ex-girlfriends).  Without the heat from a fire, thinking was impossible. The cold took up every ounce of Nick’s mental capacity, rendering his mind useless.

Upon their departure, it had been a beautiful, sunny day without a cloud in the sky. The unfortunate thing about the mountains was that it only took a moment or two for things to quickly turn sideways. What had been a distant glimmer of fog atop the mighty mountain had turned into a full blown blizzard in less than an hour.

After a few moments of silent processing, a thought broke through the icy curtain around Nick’s mind. James’s question had revealed the true nature of their predicament. “Werewolves don’t howl.” Movies and TV might portray it otherwise, but in the wild, it never happens. Werewolves are apex predators and lone hunters. There’s no need for them to communicate. They don’t reproduce, they don’t have families; they just hunt. When they want to create more werewolves, they go and bite another villager. It’s almost elegant in its simplicity.

“Werewolves don’t howl.” The statement floated through the air lazily, allowing both Nick and James to get a better look at it. Nick glanced over at James, hunkered against the side of the cave wall, and cursed himself again for forgetting the matches. Filthy habit it may be, but I’m never leaving without them again. Had it been the day trip Nick had been billed for, it wouldn’t have been a problem, but when clients flat-out lied, things tended to get a bit dicey.

“We’re not hunting a werewolf, are we?” James mumbled from deep within his parka.

Nick wished they were. Werewolves were so easy to track; big feet, lots of fur, and a swath of blood laid out behind them. “Not anymore,” he said, and was drowned out by another ear-splitting howl. It was long and mournful, shaking the walls of the cave with its intensity. Nick’s already chilled blood dropped a full degree cooler as the howl trailed off.

The animals that could have made such a noise were few. Nick pulled out a leather-bound tome from his satchel, bearing the scratches and scrapes of every journey he had ever been on. An old friend had given it to him as he was just starting up, and Nick never left without it.

Mostly, it was filled with crude drawings of various hell-bound creatures that the author had tried to seduce (he had been a bit of a drunk, and a lecher, and coke-addled, but a damned good hunter when it came down to it). Nick flipped through the pages, hoping that somewhere between poetry about the dismembered head of a warg and amateur comic strips detailing the mating habits of Romanian banshees, there would be useful information.

The sound came again; like a wolf, only longer, lower, and far louder. To be heard over the fury of a snowstorm was no easy feat. Even in the cave, they could hear the roaring of the wind outside battering the mountain in nature’s best attempt to bring it down. He continued to shuffle through the book until he happened upon the page he was looking for. Most people at the time thought that the upper slopes of the Himalayas were barren and uninhabited. Most people were wrong.

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