Buying and selling used catalytic converters happened to be illegal, which was why I stole them instead. Dogs howled somewhere in the night behind me. Junked cars stacked in towers whipped by as I sprinted through the maze. Metal clanked in the bag over my shoulder with every stop. Gunfire erupted behind me followed by a cascade of metal pellets striking cars.
Oh Christ, I thought. This idiot has a shotgun.
Since returning from being trapped in time and learning that I even had powers, I exercised extreme caution when using them. I hadn’t called on them at all outside my uncle’s property until that moment. I threw a sphere of blue light into the air behind me. The ball soared in a slow arch over the junkyard. The dogs stopped howling. More shotgun blasts rang out, but pellets didn’t hit the rusted cars.
I bolted for the fence. I tossed my sack over and climbed after my stolen parts. A puke green Dodge Shadow sat in the grass with the trunk open and the engine running. I snatched the laundry bag of catalytic converters off the ground and dove into the car’s trunk. Slamming the hatch closed, I pounded on the backseat and shouted, “Drive! Drive! Drive!”
I breathed in relief as the car started moving. I relaxed against the rocking of the worn suspension on the dirt road below. After a few minutes, I felt the mint-mobile lurch to a stop. The trunk opened, and my friend Brian helped me to my feet. Despite only being a month older than him, I towered at least a foot over Brian. In just a few months, I had grown from five-four to six-two and hadn’t adjusted to my awkward new size.
“That was close,” I said.
“No shit,” Brian said. “Was that guy shooting at you?”
“In my general direction.” I hopped in the driver’s seat with Brian to my side.
“What’s your haul?”
“Managed to saw off seven catties before the dogs freaked out.”
“What’re you doing with these? Gonna sell ‘em?”
“I told you; I’m building a time machine.”
I looped around our high school and the elementary school where Brian and I worked as janitors to be sure no one followed us. Certain no one was in pursuit, I drove home.
A dog barked as soon as Brian and I crept through the front door. I whispered, “Shut up, Roscoe. It’s me.”
The Australian shepherd quieted down.
Brian went straight to my room. I took the catalytic converters to the basement. In less than an hour, sweat and soot covered my arms and face. I sawed through the steel casings and removed the ceramic honeycomb structures that housed the platinum and palladium. The first time I’d done this, I had gone through the complicated process of chemically extracting the precious metals from the ceramic. The labor had left me with less than an ounce of platinum and a respiratory infection from inhaling the fumes. While coughing up globs of blood, I decided to find a way to use the intact ceramics instead.
I stored the honeycombs in a box in the far corner of the basement with the rest of my things. I turned to leave and faced Uncle David. My uncle stood at the bottom of the stairs in his boxers with Roscoe at his side. Tattoos and scars covered his freckled skin. Muscle bulged from David’s shoulders and forearms, making him appear larger than he already was. “You know you going to school. Tomorrow,” David said in his thick drawl. It wasn’t a question.
“Yeah, I know.”
“Then what in the sam hell are you doing down here at two in the morning making all this damn racket?”
No point lying. “Cutting up catalytic converters.”
“You smoking dope? Cause I’m gonna tell ya now. You ain’t too big to get your ass whooped.”
“I’m not on drugs. I just need the palladium. We can sell the rest to Alvis.”
“You’d make more just selling him the whole thing. If he’d even buy it knowing you stole ‘em.”
“You know he’d buy it. Alvis don’t care. But I need the metal for a project.”
“Go to sleep, boy,” David said. “And tell that midget bastard in your room to go home. Gonna start charging his ass rent if he keeps eating all my food.”
I followed David upstairs. Our bedrooms stood across the end of the hall from each other. I found Brian asleep in my bed with the lights on. I killed the lights and turn the TV on. I crawled into bed next to Brian with my feet by his head.
The next day after class, Ashley, Brian, and I sat at Ashley’s kitchen table. Ashley was the definition of average. She wasn’t tall nor short, neither fat nor thin. Her hair was an unremarkable, medium brown. Her face looked forgettable with no distinctive features. Ashley was a boring teenage girl in every way but one. Ashley was a wizard.
Even before I learned about magic and faeries, Ashley had been open about her magic use. After I came out to her and Brian about my own abilities and mishaps through time, Ashley had revealed she wasn’t just a hippy Wiccan with crystals and candles but an actual wizard.
“What are you going to start doing with your powers?” Ashley asked, abruptly changing the subject from classwork.
“Uh, nothing?” I said.
“You have to.”
“I don’t have to do anything. I used my powers to live through hell. I’m not going to just start using them for the fun of it.”
“Man,” Brian said. “If I had powers like y’all, I wouldn’t be going to school every day. I’d use ‘em.”
“To do what? Be a vigilante in the middle of nowhere?”
“I don’t know, man. I’d use them to save the world.”
“Monsters,” Ashley said.
I laughed. “Monsters?”
“They’re out there,” she said. “Not as many as in the past, and not in the open, but monsters are an issue. Plus, with a time machine, you can fight monsters anywhere. Any time.”
“I’m going home,” I said.
“Thought you didn’t want to deal with your uncle?” Brian asked.
“Listening to David bitch about me not having a job is preferable to listening to you two bitch about me not being a superhero.”
“Wait,” Ashley said. “I want to show you something.”
Brian and I followed Ashley to her bedroom. She pulled an ornate quilt down from her wall. A rectangle of white paint rested under the blanket. At the top of the rectangle, Ashley had painted a pentagram within a broken circle. More circles, filled with runic symbols, accented each point of the large star. “Don’t freak out, you guys,” Ashley said.
Ashley dragged a metal box from under her bed. She unlocked the chest and plucked a piece of chalk from the box. With the chalk, she filled in the gaps in the outer edge of the pentagram. Ashley lifted a blue gemstone the size of a marble from the lockbox to her lips and whispered. The stone flashed with blazing sapphire light and transformed into a sphere of churning water. Ashley pressed the orb of violent ocean into one point of the pentagram. She repeated the process with globes of cloud, mud, and flames. Ashley placed the fifth sphere — a ball of warm, golden light – at the top point of the pentagram. Ashley whispered into her closed fist, and then pounded against the center of the pentagram three times. The wall disappeared.
Brian and I both mumbled curses under our breaths as we stared into a room beyond the wall. Ashley walked through the archway she had created. Brian and I followed after a few seconds’ hesitation. The gap between the two rooms where the walls should have been stretched endlessly into swirling darkness. Ashley marched across the small room and through a wooden door. Rows of shelves filled the next room, packed with books and oddities. Ashley went to a small alcove in the back of the room.
The eeriness sat in the air. Recognizable unease washed over me. “Are we in the spirit world?” I asked.
“This is my demesne,” Ashley said. “My own little pocket beyond the Veil. I call it the stacks.”
“You’re a really powerful witch,” I said. “Why do you even still pretend to be human?”
“Wizard,” Ashley said, ignoring my question. “I’m not a witch.”
“What’s the difference?” Brian asked.
“My magic is mine. It comes from my own power. Witches gain power by making deals with demons.”
“We’ve seen your dusty library,” I said. “Can we go?” I wanted nothing to do with the Nether. I had had less than stellar experiences with the supernatural.
Ashley pointed at a cork board hanging on the wall. Newspaper clippings covered the board. The first told the story of a mother and her teenage daughter murdered in their Tishomingo home in 1999. Both had their throats slit, and animals had started eating the corpses before the bodies had been found. The next article discussed two supposed cougar attacks in 2001. The ‘01 attacks had occurred in Baldwin and Pisgah, Mississippi. All the cutouts told similar stories of gruesome murders or animal attacks in our tri-county area. The attacks increased in frequency with at least one per month occurring in 2004.
“What is all this?” I asked.
“I think they’re monster attacks happening here in our backyard,” Ashley said. “I think a werewolf has slowly gone crazy and started killing for sport.”
“Why would you think the deaths were linked? Some of them were animal attacks, but there were also stabbings, strangulations, slashed throats. There’s nothing suggesting any connection.”
“The full moon disagrees with you. I disagree with you.”
“Happening near the full moon is all you’ve got? Pretty sure that’s just statistical anomaly,” I said. “Even if you’re right, this isn’t our responsibility.”
“It has to be somebody’s,” Ashley said. “You and I are the only ones around that can stop this thing.”
“I’m leaving,” I said, “like I tried to do before.”
Brian and Ashley both shouted behind me. Ignoring their protests, I stomped out of Ashley’s pocket dimension. I fantasized about arguing with them over the subject as I drove home. After mentally discussing it hundreds of times, the mint mobile skidded to a stop in the gravel driveway, and I stormed into my uncle’s house.
As always, a stack of my mail sat on the kitchen table. I sorted through the magazines and college pamphlets. A single envelope stood out from the rest. Rather than a return address, a stylized I stood in the corner. The envelope lacked a stamp, and my address was handwritten at the center. Inside I found a letter and a business card.
I have been watching you for some time. I know about the device you developed. Using technology my Organization calls chronoscopes, I have watched many of your exploits. After a great deal of discussion, my superiors and I would like to invite you to join our Organization. We believe your skills and knowledge would allow you to excel under our guidance. If you have any questions or would like to accept our offer, please contact me immediately.
I wadded the business card and letter into a single clump before I tossed them in the trash. As if I needed some government organization watching my every move.
With a glass of milk and a sandwich, I hid in my room and ate at my desk. Why did everyone want me to help them? My friends pushed me to use my powers as a vigilante, but that wasn’t how I saw myself. I only ever used my powers to survive and defend myself. I treated my abilities as a tool, not a gift. Extraordinary power did not define me.
I looked around my room at drawings of comic and anime characters that covered the walls. Movie and video game posters stood out in the sea of drawings and paintings. I pulled my wallet free of my back pocket. Running my fingers over the stylized S sewn into the leather, I realized I was an idiot.
After making another sandwich, I drove back to Ashley’s house. I entered without knocking. Her dad nodded to me from the couch as I passed on my way to Ashley’s room. She sat on her bed, carving a piece of wood. “I’ve changed my mind,” I said through a bite of my sandwich. “I decided you’re right.”
“Are you eating just peanut butter?” Ashley asked.
“And honey. That’s unimportant right now.”
“It’s just weird. What am I right about?”
“We should hunt the werewolf.”
Ashley stopped whittling the chunk of wood. “Are you serious?”
“What changed your mind?”
“I just want to be the kind of person Clark Kent would be proud of,” I said. “How are we doing this? We can’t just be vigilantes off the cuff. We’d die.”
“I actually already know when I’m going to die,” Ashley said. “So, I’m not too worried. Let’s go to the stacks.”
I waited for Ashley to repeat the ritual to open the door through the Veil. We marched through the stacks, stopping for her to grab a massive tome from a shelf. At the back of the room, Ashley slammed the book on a table. Flipping through the pages, Ashley said, “First, we have to figure out which type of werewolf we’re dealing with.”
“There’s more than one?”
Asking was a mistake. Ashley fell into a detailed lecture on the various types of werewolves in our world. She talked about the demonic loup-garou, car-sized wolves originally created by curses handed out by Catholic saints. The bipedal rugaru were rare and most resembled Hollywood depictions of the monsters. According to Ashley, Zeus created lycanthropes as punishment for cannibalism. Boxenwolves, ludivic, and lobison were magical, voluntary transformations. The benevolent Hounds of God served as guardians of innocents and gatekeepers of Hell. Finally, vudkolak were werewolves of classical folklore. Ashley’s breathless yelling frightened me, but I found the rant informative.
“Based on the timing of the attacks,” Ashley said, “I assume we’re dealing with either a vudkolak or a rugaru.”
I hesitated, but asked, “Why?” I prayed the question wouldn’t spark another exasperated explanation.
“The full moon. Loup-garou, rugaru, and vudkolak all involuntarily transform during the full moon.”
“Should we just assume it’s a vudkolak then?”
Ashley’s brows pushed together. “Why do you say that?”
“Loup-garou are like moose with claws that go on rampages. Someone would’ve noticed by now. Plus it would’ve eaten the bodies. Rugaru are the only species that can infect others. If it were rugaru, we’d have new werewolves instead of corpses. Only leaves vudkolak.”
“You picked up on that pretty fast.”
“Being smart is a superpower,” I said. “Plus you just finished screaming all of this at me.”
She rolled her eyes. “Rugaru is still on the list because it killed the victims. The bitten can’t change if they don’t survive the attack in the first place.”
“Fair. So, how do we kill it?”
“If it’s vudkolak,” Ashley said, “it’s easy. Same way you’d kill any dog.”
“But if it’s not?” I asked.
Ashley pulled a small jewelry box from a shelf and shoved it toward me. Inside the box, I found an ornate spade-like blade. Intricate patterns etched the silver. The spearhead seemed almost weightless as I lifted it from the jewelry box. I slid my thumb across the sharpened edge, surprised to find the silver strong enough to cut my skin. “What is this?” I asked.
“A spearhead magically forged from my mom’s jewelry,” Ashley said. Ashley hadn’t spoken about her mother since the funeral.
“All werewolves are weak to silver.”
“But your mom’s jewelry?” I asked, but I already knew the answer from her previous lecture. Loup-garou, as a function of their damnation, could be killed by objects of pure love. Using her deceased mother’s silver, Ashley covered all werewolf varieties we might encounter. “Nevermind.”
“Next full moon is in two weeks,” Ashley said. “Think you can be ready?”
“Is there any chance you could remake this into a bunch of arrowheads?”
“I’ve never used a spear. I don’t think we have long enough for me to learn, but I’m great with a bow.”
“Fine,” Ashley said and snatched the blade from my grasp.
“What do we do until the full moon?” I asked.
Ashley studied a variety of spells and magic along with research on werewolves. I spent time practicing archery, which was already a typical hobby for me anyway. While I could hit practically any standing target, my ability deteriorated as my mark moved. Brian and I set up a system of him throwing things and me shooting at them. The concept proved simple yet effective. Within a week I could hit soda cans out of the air at about twenty-five yards.
I worried none of it would be enough. If the wolf was a vudkolak, it’d be as easy to kill as any animal. However, if the beast turned out to be a rugaru or — God forbid — a loup-garou, I feared failure and maybe death. Every creature I’d fought could easily be hurt by normal weapons and my energy manipulation. Even those monsters above my weight class, I had beaten with help and quick thinking. Sometimes just dumb luck. I might be capable of struggling through a fight with a rugaru. I knew facing a loup-garou would be like fist fighting a minivan. I would lose.
The night of the full moon, Ashley and I sat in the stacks. “Why did you make me bring along the hoodie you gave me?” I asked.
“That thing is filthy with magic,” Ashley said. “It’s why I gave it to you. Brian’s is the same. I wove so many protection spells into the fabric those hoodies should be bulletproof.”
“I don’t think I’ll test that,” I said as I pulled the sweatshirt on.
Ashley had reshaped the silver spearhead into four nasty-looking broadheads. I attached the barbed monstrosities to my best fiberglass arrows. The arrows sat in slots on the side of my compound bow, which I slung over my shoulder. My sword, Grasscutter, rested on my hip. Ashley made me feel unprepared in jeans and a hoodie. She wore all black with boots and a leather jacket. Several pouches hung from her thick belt, filled with bottles of dark liquid and random bizarre objects. Intricate daggers sat on either hip. A single glove with a massive crystal set into the back covered her left hand. With her hair pulled into a tight bun, Ashley looked fierce.
“So, you have a wand?” I asked, nodding to a wooden baton holstered behind one of her daggers.
“No,” Ashley said. “Weak wizards use wands. This is a blasting rod.”
“Which is different how?”
“Combat magic is hard. It requires complete emotional detachment. The rod serves as an anchor to quickly cast complex, offensive spells.”
“That honestly explains nothing.”
“Are you ready?” she asked.
“Yeah.” I couldn’t admit to her that I didn’t think we’d ever be ready.
On a wall in the stacks, Ashley drew another door. She filled in runes and magic circles beneath the chalk archway. Starting with the smallest circles, Ashley touched two fingers to the glyphs. She mumbled chants and released power into the drawings to bring the magic to life.
“Why are your spells so intricate?” I asked.
“This isn’t the movies,” Ashley said. “Wizards can’t wave our hands and wiggle our nose to get things done. Real magic is complicated. It requires rituals, symbolism, research, and sometimes complex anchors to work. There’s really only one wizard capable of what I’m sure you’re imagining.”
Ashley pressed her hand against the last circle. The door erupted in a rainbow of light. Color spread to the edges of the doorway. The chalk lit in a thin, golden blaze around the edges of the archway. The space in the gold light looked black, but it was nothing. Without speaking or looking back at me, Ashley stepped through the emptiness. Hesitant, I followed through the portal.
Fear gripped me. My body screamed that everything was wrong. I couldn’t see. I couldn’t feel. I didn’t exist. The sensation of falling in every direction at once overwhelmed me. The next instant, I stumbled across dew-soaked grass. My viscera rushed into my skull. My limbs gave in to weakness, and I fell to the ground. Darkness encroached around my field of vision. Finally, I breathed in deep, and the world normalized around me.
Ashley’s hand rested on my shoulder. I wanted to yell at her for not warning me how awful the portal would be, but she pointed in the darkness. I bit back my anger and followed her signal. Across the field, a white wolf trotted in the pale moonlight.
Relief washed away the tension in my body. There would be no struggle against a rugaru, no slaughter by a loup-garou. Vudkolak were no different from ordinary wolves. Killing the werewolf posed no greater challenge than a deer or rabbit.
I knelt with one knee pressed into the wet earth. Drawing the bow to my cheek, I aimed down the arrow shaft at the wolf. The arrow soared toward a point just behind the wolf’s foreleg, toward its heart. Easiest monster hunt ever.
The arrow froze in mid-air. The wolf turned blazing red eyes toward the floating arrow, and then to me. A mass of writhing shadows rose in the field as the wolf melted away. Something formed from the darkness. A white-skinned man with dirty black and grey hair rose from in the wolf’s place. I blinked. The man had moved the twenty feet. He plucked the arrow from the air and inspected it. The man closed his bone-like fist. The arrow shattered.
Almost whispering, Ashley said, “That’s not a werewolf.” Panic rose in her voice. “That’s a vetoli.”
Ashley chanted under her breath. Light sprang from the crystal on her glove, forming a wall around us. The man moved like someone under a strobe light. He traveled several yards in an instant and seemed to pause unnaturally before blinking to another spot in the field. Within a few heartbeats, the man stood in front of Ashley’s wall.
Dirt covered his black clothes. White skin stretched over his bones to the point he looked like a skeleton. Hair sprouted in thin patches on his head. The man had no pupils or irises. Blood red circles marked the centers of his jaundiced eyes. “Wizard,” he said, revealing mangled, pointed teeth crowding his jaw.
The demon hissed and wheezed in a strange language while moving his hands and fingers in flowing patterns. Red light formed at the tips of his blade-like fingernails. He pressed his magic-coated claws against the wall of light. Ashley grunted and frantically chanted. The crystal on her glove glowed brighter, and the wall around us thickened. The beast growled and pressed harder into the light. Ashley screamed as her magic barrier shattered.
I blinked and found myself dangling in the air. The creature held me at arm’s length by the neck. He smelled like a nursing home, like dust and death. I clawed at his hand. Papery skin peeled away beneath my fingers. The red-eyed man hissed and released me. An unseen force slammed into my chest, and I flew for what seemed like forever.
My right side crashed into the ground. Snapping rang out. Air tore from my lungs. Pain flared in my chest and side as I heaved, failing to breathe in or out. I forced a feeble cry from my lips. Sharp stabbing filled my side as I finally inhaled. Dull burning followed as I breathed out. I took precious minutes to roll onto my feet. I jogged a few steps before pain dropped me back to my knees.
Over a hundred yards away, Ashley fought the skeleton man. Bolts of lighting and jets of flame streaked across the field from her blasting rod. The walking corpse created shields of red light and blocked Ashley’s spells with ease. The dead man fired back wisps of red mist that Ashley deflected with her own shield. They danced around each other exchanging magical blows that lit the night sky. Until the creature blinked forward and lifted Ashley off the ground by her throat.
Groaning, I struggled to my feet. I ran with a limp, avoiding stepping with my right leg. Even with the awkward gait, my side protested with stabs of pain. I wouldn’t make it to Ashley in time. I drew Grasscutter and sliced at the air. Wind gusted violently from the sword. With hurricane gales rushing in front of me, I launched the blade toward the demon. Grasscutter rode the wind in half a heartbeat. The sword slammed into the back of the demon’s skull. The skeletal man crumbled to dust.
I retrieved Grasscutter as I tumbled to Ashley’s side. Blood rushed out of her pale skin from wounds in her chest and neck. Wet crimson stained her shirt just below her bust. There was so much blood. I pressed my hands against the wound to no avail.
“You’re amazing,” Ashley said. “You killed a vetoli vampire on your own.”
“Stop talking, I said. I tried to tear away strips of the hoodie, but I wasn’t strong enough. “We have to get you to a hospital.”
“Can’t. No point. Too much blood loss. Vetoli venom thins blood and accelerates the heart. I’m already gone.”
“Don’t say that. We have to do something.”
“It had to happen this way. It had to.”
Ashley touched a crystal on her necklace. Gold light bathed over us. The sickening feeling of nonexistence swam through me before we crashed onto Ashley’s bed.
“You have to go,” she said.
“I’m not leaving.”
“There’s nothing you can do.” Ashley pointed to an envelope on her bedside table. “Take that letter and go.”
“I need you to go. You can’t be here when someone finds my body. Too many questions that way. This isn’t the last time you’ll see me. Just go.”
I stood from Ashley’s bed and grabbed the letter. As I opened her window to climb out, Ashley said, “Cletus, I want you to live well.”
An invisible force washed over me with Ashley’s last words. The power pulled me to my knees. When I stood, I found the light gone from Ashley’s eyes. I removed the belt of magical artifacts from her waist. No one should know about those things. I closed Ashley’s eyes. I slid from her bedroom window. Tears streaming down my cheeks, I hobbled to my car and fled.