Part One: The Cabin
“Watch out!” Mitch Storm yelled as he swung around, coming into a firing position and leveling his rifle. The shot flashed past Jacob, catching a large gray wolf in its shoulder just as the wolf lunged for the kill. The animal yelped in pain and drew back, bleeding but not defeated.
“Behind you!” Jacob Drangosavich blasted his shotgun, aiming at the wolf running toward Mitch. He missed, cursed, and reloaded, but the wolf changed course, escaping the shot.
The wolves were huge and fast—and more aggressive than Mitch or Jacob had ever seen before. They worked as a pack, keeping their would-be prey corralled, striking in teams with uncanny precision. And despite what Jacob had heard about wolves preferring not to engage with humans, these animals seemed to be looking for a fight.
Four government agents. Four man-sized wolves. Jacob liked better odds.
It was supposed to be a routine mission—as much as any assignment was ‘routine’ for the Department of Supernatural Investigation. Reports of strange sightings and unusual kills of deer and farm animals had the locals worried. Theories abounded, ranging from packs of rabid wild dogs to crazed bears. A few old-timers muttered about dark magic and a witch in the forest. DSI sent two agents to investigate. Those agents disappeared.
A man’s scream made Jacob wheel around, in time to see a wolf lunge for Keller, one of their fellow agents. Keller wasn’t fast enough to get out of the way, and the creature knocked him to the ground, raking him with its claws. A second wolf closed quickly, biting deep into Keller’s arm and knocking his rifle out of reach. Keller shouted and struggled to get loose, pinned by wolves that were each as big as he was.
Mitch gave a war cry and ran toward Keller, rifle at the ready. He shot the wolf that had the agent pinned, catching the animal in the chest and knocking it off Keller and onto its side. The second wolf snarled and sprang at Mitch, who barely dodged out of the way of its sharp claws.
A rifle shot cracked. “Got it!” Agent Anna Corbett muttered as the wolf fell over.
“There’s another one coming!” Jacob yelled, blasting the third wolf with his shotgun. It yelped and backed off but did not fall, though it was bleeding from where the buckshot had torn into it. Instead, the wolf kept both Mitch and Jacob in its sight, staring them down with its yellow eyes, waiting for a chance to strike.
By some silent signal, the last two wolves attacked. One went for Anna, while the other came at Mitch so fast, he barely had a chance to pull the trigger. Anna’s shot went wide. Jacob struggled to get a clear shot without endangering either of his partners. Mitch’s rifle shot caught the injured wolf in the belly and dropped him to the ground. Anna fired again, striking the last wolf in the side.
“I’d say that takes care of the wolves,” Mitch said, looking around at the four fallen predators.
Jacob and Anna were already heading for Keller. “He’s alive,” Jacob reported, hefting Keller into his arms. “But we need to get him to a doctor.”
Mitch regarded Keller, and then glanced at the cabin. “We will. But we may not get another chance to take a look at that house. Let’s go. We’ll make it quick.”
Their objective was an old cabin in the forest. The area was thinly settled, mostly farms, with large tracts of woods. They were two hours out of New Pittsburgh by rail, and another hour out by carriage before they used the velocipedes. All four agents had come up the night before and spent the day interviewing locals. Frightened farmers and spooked loggers reported strange lights in the forest, odd, eerie noises, animals acting strangely, and grisly attacks on deer and cattle.
If it weren’t for the dead deer and slaughtered cows, Jacob would have dismissed the whole thing as superstition, or low-level magic. The deaths were worrisome, and the missing agents more so. Now, after traveling an hour into the forest, they had found the house, only to discover that it was protected by wolves that were singularly focused on keeping them away.
“I’ll stand guard,” Anna volunteered. “Why don’t you two go in and have a look around. I’ll keep an eye on Keller. Mind you be quick about it. We need to get him out of here, and those wolves might have friends.” Anna pushed a lock of short red hair out of her eyes. She was tall, with an athlete’s grace, and a crack shot with her rifle. Her Philadelphia manners made her seem more likely for finishing school than the rifle range, something she often used to her advantage.
Mitch Storm, by contrast, looked like every penny dreadful’s idea of a secret agent. He was built like a boxer, with dark hair, dark eyes, and a five o’clock shadow that started at three. Jacob was tall and rangy, with blond hair, blue eyes, and a long face that showed his Eastern European heritage. Mitch and Jacob had fought together in the Army during the rancher wars, and had been recruited by DSI shortly after things settled down out West. Mitch’s talent as an Army sharpshooter still came in handy, as did Jacob’s ability with languages. Anna was particularly good at gaining the confidence of strangers, making her an adept spy and her partner, Keller, was a whiz at gadgets and fixing things. They made a good team.
Anna stayed on the cabin’s porch, rifle at the ready, while Mitch and Jacob went inside. Mitch kicked the front door open while Jacob did the same at the rear. The door slammed wide, banging against the inside wall. Mitch and Jacob charged in, guns drawn.
“Not much to look at,” Mitch muttered.
“Looks like someone was here recently,” Jacob observed. “Wonder how they fared with all the wolves.”
The cabin was likely an old hunting retreat, now fallen on hard times. Jacob could see where water had leaked through the roof, and where insects had damaged the log walls. It was larger than most cabins, more than just one room and a loft. Mitch entered through the sitting area. Jacob came through a mudroom in the back, designed for boots and coats, that led into a rudimentary kitchen. In between the kitchen and the sitting room were two small bedrooms.
Mitch circled the sitting room. “Whoever holed up here made themselves comfortable,” he called out, noting a worn couch, a small table, and a fireplace that had seen heavy use.
“Someone was here recently enough to leave peelings and egg shells in the garbage that haven’t gone sour,” Jacob reported from the kitchen. “The coal stove looks like it’s been used lately, and there’s still water in the reservoir.
Guns drawn, Jacob and Mitch converged on the middle rooms. Jacob went left; Mitch went right.
“Someone left in a hurry,” Jacob said. “There are blankets and a bedroll.” He scouted the rest of the room. “Nothing else—no personal items.”
“I found something.” Mitch’s voice was flat and hard. Jacob knew from experience that meant trouble. He walked across the hall.
“Maybe the farmers were onto something when they said there was a witch in the woods,” Mitch said, nodding toward the center of the room.
A pentacle inside a circle took up most of the floor, almost large enough to touch all four walls. The smell of sage, incense, and burned hair hung in the air. Four candles, burned down to nubs, marked the quarters of the circle. In the center was the butchered body of a chicken.
“Off hand, I’d say someone was dabbling with dark magic,” Jacob observed.
“The real question is, why?” Mitch mused. He pulled out one of the experimental cameras their inventor friend Adam Farber had supplied them with and took a couple of pictures of the pentacle.
“What’s up here worth hexing?” Jacob asked. “Unless it’s a witch who can work magic at a distance—someone who can scry, for example, or do divination.”
“Whoever it is, they’re trouble,” Mitch replied. “So where did they go, and what’s their next step?”
“Mitch, Jacob—the wolves are back,” Anna called from outside.
“More wolves?” Mitch yelled, putting away his camera and grabbing his rifle.
“No.” Anna sounded spooked. “The same wolves. They’re getting up again.”
“Shit,” Mitch muttered. He and Jacob ran for the porch. Anna was right: the wolves were staggering to their feet. Wounds that should have been mortal had rapidly healed, and open gashes were closing before their eyes.
“We’ve got trouble,” Jacob said, chambering a round in his shotgun.
“Run!” Mitch said. “Get to the steambikes. I’ll give you and Anna a head start.”
Mitch was moving before Jacob could object. Jacob hefted Keller onto his shoulder and then he and Anna ran toward where they had left their velocipedes. Mitch had begun shouting and waving his arms to draw off the attention of the recovering wolves, a move that was brave and expedient but made Jacob question his partner’s sanity.
“Hey, Rover!” Mitch yelled. “Over here!”
The wolves moved more slowly than before, but considering they had appeared dead minutes before, it seemed plenty fast. The man-sized predators lowered their heads and slowly advanced as Mitch edged in the opposite direction from Jacob and Anna.
“Sit! Bad dog!” Mitch shouted.
“What the hell is he doing?” Anna asked as she and Jacob ran through the brush. Keller was dead weight on Jacob’s shoulder, soaking him with blood.
“He’s being Mitch,” Jacob replied, as if that explained everything.
Their steambikes were where they left them, stashed in bushes behind trees a distance from the cabin. They had walked the bikes for the last mile or so when they were heading for the cabin, not wanting to scare off their quarry. Now, noise was a weapon.
“What about Keller? These things don’t have sidecars,” Anna observed.
“Wait here,” Jacob said, already swinging a leg over his velocipede. “I’ll be right back.” He started the bike with a roar and then looked back. “Oh, and expect loud noises.”
Jacob took off, sending up a spray of dirt and leaves. He crouched over the handlebars, doing his best to evade low branches and overhanging bushes. The ride was rough, and Jacob fought to keep control of the bike. It was another piece of Farber’s experimental equipment, and Jacob suspected that one reason he and Mitch so often got prototypes was that anything that survived one of their missions had been field tested in the extreme. Jacob had lost count of how many velocipedes they’d ‘tested’ so far.
Just as he expected, Mitch was in the thick of things by the time he got back to the cabin. Mitch had retreated to high ground, and was now on the log house’s porch roof. Mitch shot one of the wolves, stopping it with a bullet to the chest. He got another in the hindquarters. The other two moved forward, undeterred.
“Stay put!” Jacob shouted as the steambike burst into the clearing. He flicked a switch, and the bike’s custom-built Gatling gun opened fire, spraying bullets across the clearing. The wolves fell to the onslaught, though Jacob doubted they would stay down.
“Run!” he yelled as Mitch swung down off the porch roof and landed in a crouch. Mitch sprinted toward the bike.
“Hang on,” Jacob ordered, and flicked another switch. I can’t believe I’m doing this. I think I’ve been around Mitch too long. There was a whoosh as the Ketchum grenade cleared the launcher, and then a few seconds later, an ear-splitting boom echoed through the forest as the cabin exploded. Jacob didn’t stop to watch. He gunned the bike into a turn with Mitch riding pillion and headed back to where Anna and Keller waited, going as fast as he dared through the forest.
“I see you found a way to deal with the wolves,” Anna observed, raising an eyebrow.
“For now,” Mitch replied. “We’ve got no idea what they can survive, since bullets sure didn’t stop them.”
“What about him?” Jacob said with a nod toward Keller, who was still unconscious.
Mitch swore. “I’m a little better with the velocipedes than you or Anna, put Keller on behind me and tie him on. It’ll have to do. Anna, you ride with Jacob.” He glanced behind them, toward the burning house. “Hurry.”
They had barely gone another mile before Anna spotted trouble. “More wolves,” she yelled above the noise of the steambikes’ engines. “Coming in at three o’clock.” She paused. “We’ve got some on the left at nine o’clock.”
At the speed they were going, Jacob could spare no more than a second’s glance to the side for fear of hitting a root or driving into branches. It was enough to see the large, gray predators running toward them.
“Can we outrun them?” Jacob yelled to Mitch.
“That’s not what I wanted to hear,” Jacob returned.
“Bike goes about forty miles an hour, tops,” Mitch returned. “Wolves run a little slower.”
“But that’s without a second rider! How much slower?” Jacob questioned, as the wolves closed fast in his rear-view mirror.
“Depends on the wolf,” Mitch hollered back.
Pray for slow wolves, Jacob thought. “Anna! You’re going to have to do the shooting. Keep them off our tails.”
Jacob let his bike fall back just a bit, allowing Mitch to move ahead of him on the forest trail. He knew there was no way Mitch could shoot and drive the bike with Keller’s unbalanced weight on the back. That left Anna to keep the wolves at bay while Jacob maneuvered the bike. Even if the wolves can match our pace, they can’t keep it up forever. We just have to outrun them long enough for them to tire.
Bang. The gunshot right behind him made Jacob flinch, nearly sending them off the trail. The next shot’s recoil jerked the bike. But Anna managed to hang on to him and shoot. Jacob couldn’t spend time worrying about it. Navigating the bike at a breakneck speed took all his concentration.
“Duck!” Anna yelled and shot again. It sounded to Jacob like the shot went right past his head. A huge wolf dropped out of the sky directly into the path of their bike, bleeding from a bullet that had torn into its chest.
“Damn!” Jacob swerved, nearly toppling the bike, but managed to right them before they went over. Mitch’s bike was swaying crazily with Keller’s dead weight on the back. Jacob steered around the wolf, but he could see two more running alongside the trail. Anna wasn’t going to be able to shoot them both at once.
“Slew!” Mitch shouted over the noise of the bikes.
“You’ve got to be kidding!” Jacob yelled back. He knew the maneuver, but the odds of it working here and now, at this speed on the rough forest trail were not in their favor.
“Go!” Mitch yelled, as if he hadn’t heard Jacob’s comment.
Mitch slewed his bike in a half circle to the right. Jacob skid-turned to the left. Both of them opened fire with their Gatling guns, raking the forest in a circle.
The trick is stopping in time, or we shoot each other, Jacob thought as he fought for control of the bike. His steambike fishtailed, threatening to pull out of his grasp. Anna ducked, slinging her rifle over her shoulder and holding on to Jacob for dear life.
Tree trunks splintered. The wolves let out a yelp of fright and pain. Bits of branches, chopped off by the barrage of gunfire, rained down on them. Bullets pocked the ground, sending up a spray of dirt. A flock of birds rose noisily in a black cloud from the branches overhead, jarred loose by the noise and vibration.
Jacob cut the Gatling fire but could not stop the bike from skidding into almost a complete circle, though he and Anna managed not to be thrown. Mitch’s bike cornered low, throwing Keller from the improvised restraints, and sending Mitch and the steambike in opposite directions.
Anna had her gun up and ready, scanning the area. “I don’t see any more wolves,” she said, and Jacob checked the bike for damage and reassured himself that he was still alive.
Mitch stood and dusted himself off. His jacket and pants were torn, there were leaves in his hair, and a new bruise on the side of his face, but the look in his eyes told Jacob that Mitch was enjoying every minute of their desperate ride. Mitch walked over to retrieve Keller. “He’s still alive,” he announced.
“Amazing, with you driving,” Jacob returned.
Mitch gave him a sour glance. “Better than leaving him for the wolves,” he replied. With Jacob’s help, Mitch fastened Keller onto the bike once more. The wounded agent leaned like a drunk. “Let’s get back to civilization, and figure this out later.”
* * *
Continue the Adventure in Rogue, a Storm & Fury steampunk novella. Available in ebook for Kindle, Kobo, and Nook.