The warm morning sun glinted into my room. The fire was long out. Chairs were not exactly comfortable places to spend the night. Small pops crackled in my neck and shoulders as I stretched.
There was no school today, due to a teacher in-service. I’d have one last critical day to prepare for tomorrow; my first real hunt.
I hit the shower.
Dressed in a fresh white V-neck and blue jeans, I strolled down the hall toward the elevator. Each of the resident families lived on a different floor, which made it easier to live together. The fifth floor was my dad's and mine until . . . well, until a few weeks ago. Now it was just mine. My chest tightened with an ache of loss, and I fought it off with a deep breath.
Originally our hotel, the Pink Hippo, was built in 1848 to house the miners working the nearby coal mines. Some wealthy baron owned all the land surrounding the mines and wouldn’t allow houses to be built within five miles. Instead, he collected rent from the men in the inn. He charged a ridiculous amount, what some might consider extortion, but paying that was better than making the long trek up the mountain from the sleepy village of Ashley Meadows each day.
The inn shut down in 1860 when the coal mines dried up. Well, they didn't dry up. There was still plenty of coal down there. Closing the mining operation was in relation to my line of work and the reason for stationing a chapter of the Society here. It was also how the Baron lost his fortune.
“Greed gets you,” McGarrett said when he told me the story.
The Pink Hippo was fifteen miles east of Ashley Meadows, deep in Theodore Woods and located at the base of Kinley peak. It was the Eastern United States Regional Headquarters for the Society.
The Pink Hippo had seven floors, a grand lobby, a massive dining hall, a kitchen, two libraries, a clock tower, and an indoor-outdoor pool. Several outbuildings also dotted the property: a chapel, horse stable, sheds of varying sizes, and a large workshop. The workshop, built in 1983, was a new addition in comparison to the inn. The Society commissioned the workshop when the Pink Hippo became regional headquarters. It housed our command center and was filled with the latest in surveillance technology and the laboratory used to design and build new gadgets and equipment.
McGarrett was the commander of our chapter of the Legion der Dämonjäger, or Society, as we referred to it. I would have called us an operations team, but the Society preferred the term chapter.
McGarrett often joked that he could run a small country from there. Ike thought there was enough technology and weaponry to take over a small country. And he was right; we had everything from powerful explosives to micro drones and high-speed jetpacks. It’d have to be a surgical strike, but if we hit the right government targets, it would be effective enough. Ike and I might have had more than one conversation about taking over some small Caribbean island nation and settling there to retire.
“Good morning,” I said, stepping into the 19th-century style caged elevator. Ike forced a smile. He wore his smart glasses, as I called them. His blond hair was tousled, and his blue button-up was half tucked into his khakis.
I recalled my rudeness last night. “Hey, I’m sorry, man, about what I said last night. I’ll buy you a doughnut to make up for it.”
The fake smile turned genuine. Ike’s blue eyes brightened behind the square black-framed spectacles. “No problem. You want to go to the workshop with me?”
Ike was like that; instantly forgiving, especially when it came to me.
“All ready ate with my dad at five. He and McGarrett are checking over the gear again.”
Five in the morning was not an option for me. Ever! Anything before seven thirty was the middle of the night.
“I’ll be over as soon as I get a bite to eat.”
The lift stopped, and the metal door clattered open.
“See you then.”
Mrs. Riley was the only one in the large dining room. She wore a crisp, clean white apron over a flowery purple dress. Her gray hair was tied into a tight bun.
“Good morning, Taylor,” she called, flipping several plate-sized pancakes onto a dish. The table was set for one: me, but you’d think she was preparing for the president. A white cloth napkin was folded into a squirrel, silverware was arranged perfectly on either side of my plate, and a centerpiece of leaves and gourds was set as decoration. There was a glass of orange juice, water, and a mug waiting to be filled with her hot, spiced, home-squeezed apple cider.
“Good morning.” I smiled.
Mrs. Riley was McGarrett’s wife. You would think McGarrett was a last name, but Riley is a first name, so McGarrett’s parents decided a kid needed one of each: McGarrett Riley. His parents were an eccentric sort I gathered from Mrs. Riley’s stories about her husband’s family.
Mrs. Riley loaded a second plate with a few more homemade specialties: sausage, an omelet, and cranberry-apple oatmeal. Everything she made was from scratch. A large greenhouse full of fruits and vegetables and pens of livestock made sure there was a ready supply of fresh ingredients. No matter what time of year.
Sure, this was a lot of food, but a guy needed to eat. I mean come on; I was fifteen and growing. The workouts and training ignited an appetite in me like I never knew could exist.
Yesterday Ike repeatedly called me “a ravenous wolf,” until Mrs. Riley reminded him that a HowlSage embodied physical traits like a wolf. After that, he simply called me insatiable. I asked Mrs. Riley what that word meant after Ike left.
The definition suited; I was always eating. Yet, according to my body mass index, I wasn't gaining extra fat, just muscle weight. All the exercise combined with the protein-loaded meals caused me to bulk up quickly, something I took note of in the mirror every morning. I wore a medium size shirt now, and for a fifteen-year-old, I sported muscles that had the football coach asking me to join the varsity team. But this year, this season, I didnt feel like playing any sports. And I wouldn’t have time for it, if I wanted to.
“How’d you do last night?” Mrs. Riley asked, a note of concern in her sweet voice. It was no secret I wasn’t sleeping well, and she thought it was too soon after my father’s death for me to hunt.
But I was after revenge, and I wanted to be the one to banish the HowlSage and catch the Cloak.
“Uh, good,” I said.
“Well, I’ve been praying without ceasing for you. He is watching over you,” she promised. “You’re in good hands.”
I shrugged. “I know.”
She wasn't talking about McGarrett and Olson Swigart watching over me. However in that regard, the two of them were arguably two of the top experts in the Society. At least that’s what my dad told me once he revealed who he was and what he did for his job.
I’d only learned what my dad, David Rivers, really did this April. He’d waited until my fifteenth birthday to tell me about his new job. Initially, I’d been okay with his reasoning for waiting to tell me. Now I questioned it. I often felt a guilty sense of anger at him. Guilty because he was dead, angry because he had kept what he really did from me for so long.
“Well, I’ll let you eat. McGarrett is anxious to see you.” Mrs. Riley headed for the kitchen humming “Great is Thy Faithfulness” as she disappeared through the swinging doors.
I dug into the steaming plate of home cooked goodness.
The cool October air sent a shiver over my bare arms as I stepped out of the Pink Hippo. The leaves were changing and falling. Hundreds tumbled across the driveway’s damp, gray cobblestones in the chilly autumn breeze. The fountain in the center of the circle drive was long shut off for the soon to arrive freeze. The sky was gray and cloudy. I shivered and pulled my arms across my chest. A lot of people liked harvest season. I didn't. Give me a hot sandy beach, some waves, and a freshly waxed board any day.
An image of the Australian coast flashed in my mind. It was summer. I was thirteen, and my girlfriend had a killer accent. She and I sat for hours on the warm sand watching the waves and sipping cherry colas as the blazing orange sun set in the distance.
A gust kicked up a swirl of leaves and swept away my dreamy memory. I shivered. The jacket I’d left in my room would have been nice about then, but I was too lazy to go back for it. Toughen up.
One of the workshop’s garage doors was open. Blue sparks flew onto the stone driveway. Ike and his dad were tweaking my gear to perfection. The workshop was where Ike and his dad experimented, built, and fixed their inventions, and where McGarrett did research and tracking. Our weapons and vehicles were secured there. It was also the last place I saw my dad alive; the last moment when I still thought of him as an invincible demon-fighting-superhero.
It turned out he wasn’t invincible.
The feeling of loss twisted in me like a screw. My throat constricted. A deep breath and sprint to the garage were futile attempts to bury the thoughts.
“Hey Mr. Riley,” I said, entering the command center.
“Taylor, my boy. Again, call me McGarrett.”
McGarrett was what his chapter called him when he hunted, instead of using his last name like a team might usually do. I’d always been taught not to call adults by their first name because it was disrespectful.
McGarrett turned in his chair, a mug of coffee in one hand. The wall of the command center across from the door was nothing but huge video displays. The center screen showed a thirty-mile radius around Ashley Meadows; encompassing the abandoned coal mines, Coal Chase Lake, Fifteen Mile Lake, Kinley Peak, Elsie Peak, Waverly Peak, Declan Peak, all of Theodore Woods, and the Bone Fields.
“Still no sign of our mysterious Cloak.” McGarrett rubbed a hand through his steel gray hair. “Neither the cameras nor sensors have picked up any elevated levels of demon aura at the mines.”
“Maybe they gave up. Maybe there won’t be a rising,” I said with misplaced hope.
McGarrett cleared his throat. “Possible.” But I knew he doubted it. “We’ll expect the HowlSage to go right into town. It will venture into populated places until it’s banished. It feeds off sin, like a tick sucks blood from the back of a dog’s neck.”
“Thanks for the visual.”
He chuckled. “Yes, well.” He pointed to another screen.
His words “Until it’s banished,” hung in my mind like a storm cloud. Doubt crept in. He didn't think I was ready. That I was strong enough to defeat it quickly. That’s what he meant by “until.”
“Taylor, I’ve been part of many hunts, as the hunter and as support.” McGarrett’s green eyes were large, his graying eyebrows arching.
I knew the coming speech; I'd heard it every day since I became a hunter. It was the speech where he emphasized the importance of ‘The Sword’ and how the fight was as much spiritual as it was physical.
McGarrett cared for me; I knew he felt responsible for me now that both my parents were gone. But I couldn't take any more speeches. I'd begged McGarrett and Mr. Swigart to let me search the tunnels and find the new den, but they wouldn't let me. They said it was too dangerous. As if fighting a hairy wolf-like beast with razor fangs wasn't dangerous. I’d rather get it in its nest then after it rose with an appetite.
McGarrett clicked his tongue. “Taylor, are you listening? This is important. Why do you think I keep mentioning it?” he asked about his ‘The Sword’ speech.
Thankfully our conversation was interrupted by Mr. Swigart, who entered, Ike in tow. Mr. Swigart wore a white lab coat over the top of a thermal shirt that matched his light blue eyes. His coal black hair was slicked back and parted to the right. He wore squared silver wireframes. They weren't ordinary glasses. I sneaked a peek through them once, and the lenses were enhanced screens providing real-time data. For example, if he was working on an engine, the lenses came alive with labels for each part. Mr. Swigart could even reorder a part from a Society supply depot just by winking or pointing at the part.
Once though, a case of hood ornaments arrived, apparently something got in Mr. Swigart’s eye, and he’d blinked a dozen times while looking at the hood of McGarrett’s car. He updated the glasses ordering application to require that the word "confirm" be said to place the order.
“The J-Pak is ready,” Mr. Swigart said.
“I guess it’s time to train,” McGarrett said.
Mr. Swigart was a well-known inventor in the Society. He'd come up with a wide range of weapons, gear, applications, and chemical agents, including the glasses I just described. He and his wife chose Ashley Meadows as their home, and most of his work was first field tested here. That was a lot of what my dad did in between missions. They’d been here for at least fifteen years. Ike knew about his father’s occupation from when he was born.
“Taylor, you ready to fly?” McGarrett asked.
I nodded. “Of course.”
“I’ve also finished up a new neutralizing agent created specifically for the HowlSage,” Mr. Swigart said. “But we’ll have to wait to test that when you face the demon.”
HowlSagen were notoriously difficult to mask from the public's knowledge. That was half our job, keeping the demons’ physical presence hidden from the public.
Fortunately, HowlSagen were not a common occurrence, they rose once or twice a century at most. That was also a problem, because there was so little known about them. Even the Society archives were sparse on information about the demons. And most of the stories or articles related to them were not written by Society members, but instead by newspaper journalists retelling someone’s account of an encounter with a ‘werewolf,’ or a colonial farmer’s journal entry about a large beast stealing their livestock.
The J-Pak sat on a table in the laboratory portion of the workshop. Mr. Swigart and Ike worked on it for four months. My dad never had the chance to use it. I would be the first. Testing it made me a little nervous, but Mr. Swigart was the most thorough person I’d ever met. I was sure he’d run a million computer simulations on it and checked and rechecked his design and assembly.
“We’ll take it down to the lake to test,” McGarrett said. “No prying eyes.”
“And a safe place to crash,” I added.
McGarrett and Mr. Swigart gave off nervous laughs.
“Hitting the water at full speed would feel like concrete,” Ike said factually. “You’d break several bones and possibly die.”
The three of us stared at him, and Mr. Swigart squeezed his son’s shoulder with a sigh.
“Shall we?” Mr. Swigart asked and grabbed the J-Pak.
We piled into McGarrett’s old World War II army Jeep; a Willy’s MB, a point McGarrett made evident at each use. The J-Pak sat between Ike and me as the Jeep bounced down the narrow dirt road leading to Coal Chase Lake. ‘Private Property’ and ‘No Trespassing’ signs ringed the lake as did a series of remote sensors that warned McGarrett of unwanted visitors.
Fifteen minutes later and halfway through a war story, the Jeep rolled onto the rocky shore of the lake, sending a flock of mallard ducks into the air. They flew a few dozen yards over the lake and landed on one of the many small islands.
I slipped on a spare black coat I took from the command center, and Mr. Swigart hefted the pack onto my back and secured it. He ran over the J-Pak’s controls which were embedded on the backside of a pair of black gloves. Though it was my first time up, I didn't have the same anxiety of test flying the J-Pak as I did facing the HowlSage, even though both could easily kill me.
McGarrett handed me a black helmet with a chin strap and a pair of goggles that looked like they belonged to a World War I fighter pilot. I put on the goggles and information flashed across the lenses; modern tech with a 1917 look. The lens tech was exactly like Mr. Swigart’s. I slipped on the helmet last.
“There’s a mic in the chin strap, and ear piece in the right side of the helmet,” McGarrett said. “We’ll be in communication the whole time.”
“Ready?” Mr. Swigart asked as he stepped away.
McGarrett looked me over and grasped my shoulders. Ike scanned me, touching the components on the jet pack. I saw him double checking his tablet.
“Okay, son, it’s time.” I heard the words in my dad’s voice, but realized Mr. Swigart was talking to Ike.
What I would have given to have my dad there as I took on the HowlSage. Of course, if he was here, I wouldn’t be the hunter.
Ike backed away.
“Taylor, take it up slow,” McGarrett said.
I nodded and pressed a green triangle on the backside of my left glove. The two wings expanded from the pack. The triangle turned red. If I pressed it again, the wings would retract.
Both gloves had the exact same controls, but I was right handed, so I tended to rely on the controls on the back of the left glove. I pressed a green flame icon, and the J-Pak engines ignited in near silence.
“We have ignition,” Ike said aloud.
I slid my finger up a green flashing line, and the thrust of the engines increased. My body lifted slowly at first. The lift off was smooth and almost unnoticeable as I rose over McGarrett’s head.
“And launch,” Ike added.
Mr. Swigart gave two thumbs up.
My altitude and speed displayed on my goggle lenses. I increased the thrust and soon I was fifty feet above the ground; it was weird looking down at the Swigarts and McGarrett. I was higher than the nearest trees. I kicked my legs. Nothing, just air. So, this is what birds see when they soar overhead?
“More thrust before you try to fly forward,” Mr. Swigart’s voice squeaked through the earpiece in my helmet.
At fifty miles per hour, I leaned forward. The shore shifted under me and disappeared as I zipped above the lake. I was about three hundred feet in the air and nearing eighty miles per hour. This was freedom like I’d never felt before. Millions of people flew each year in airplanes, but this was different. I was exposed. I felt almost naked in the sky, with nothing holding me back or protecting me. The jealous grasp of gravity wanted to rip me back down to earth, but the jets fought on my behalf.
“Once you’re comfortable, make a wide turn,” Mr. Swigart said.
Flying was easier than I imagined. I turned in a full circle over the wide lake then zipped past McGarrett, Mr. Swigart, and Ike. My confidence grew with the long turn and the ease of the controls and navigation.
I turned again, and this time I twisted like a corkscrew, Kinley Peak, the sky, and Coal Chase Lake, all became a swirling blur as I spun. I straightened and pulled my head up to gain altitude. Momentary dizziness overcame my mind. I took a breath, and my heart pounded with a surge of adrenaline.
I maxed at one hundred miles per hour and five hundred feet altitude when McGarrett called me back down. I slowed and then straightened so that I was vertical. I dropped a bit too quickly and increased the thrusters to slow my descent. I hovered in mid-air for a moment just over everyone’s heads, then continued decreasing thrust and lowered to the rocky shore.
“Well done, Taylor,” said McGarrett as he helped remove my gear.
Mr. Swigart typed into a handheld device. “Yes, excellent. The J-Pak performed better than expected. You’re a natural pilot.”
“What did you expect?” I asked.
Caution hid behind Mr. Swigart’s eyes. “The turning was the spot that posed the highest danger, and you perfected that. Secondly landing, but again here you are. Well done!”
“Well let’s head to the gym for some sparring,” McGarrett said.
Part of me wanted to take a second flight, but I knew that would come soon enough. It was exhilarating to fly so freely, so unconstrained by an airplane’s fuselage.
After dinner, I went to my room with no intention of going to sleep yet. My mind was buzzing with the excitement left over from flying. To quiet my mind, I flopped down with an episode of my current graphic novel, The Howling of Hamburg, and waited for the tenth gong of the clock tower. I needed to do one last thing before I went into battle tomorrow. I donned a black fleece jacket and athletic pants and then tied up my sneakers. I slipped my sword into its sheath and strapped it to my waist.
The window was made of two sections filled with dozens of diamond-shaped panes. I pressed the window open at the center, and a cold breeze swept into my room carrying an eerie silence. The lights in the workshop were out, and the lawn was empty. I slipped out the window and down the five-story trellis.
Crouching, I crossed the front lawn, passed the fountain, then headed toward the workshop. I tapped in the passcode and entered. The lights went on automatically, and I spotted my target. The jet pack sat on the table of the lab, my flight gear was next to it. I grabbed the pack and gear and sneaked out the back door leading to the woods.
I planned to head to the lake, but I changed course for the basketball court. There were no branches overhead to get snagged on, and with near silent engines, no one would hear me. The night vision goggles were enhanced with thermal imaging, so my vision was nearly as good as in daytime.
A few minutes later, I was over the lake cruising at one hundred miles per hour and headed for the mines. The flight was smooth, and I landed inside a tall chain-link fence meant to keep trespassers out.
The mine entrance looked like a mouth waiting to swallow me. A large, steel barrier was permanently bent backward from some teenager and their truck, or my dad’s assailant.
I walked toward the hole and slid my sword from its sheath just in case. I wasn't there to fight, and I wasn't there to hunt. I was there to mourn my dad one last time.
“Dad, I know you’re not in these tunnels. I know you’re with Jesus in Heaven. I only wanted to see where you walked your last few steps,” I said aloud. It felt good to talk to my dad like he could hear me, even though I knew he couldn't. “I know you never expected me to wear your shoes so soon, but I am, and I’m going to make you proud. I’m going to banish the HowlSage, find the person that lured you into the tunnels, and then kill every SwampSagen I find.”
The chain-link fence rattled behind me, and I spun around to face the threat. My night vision flared from a flashlight.
“Taylor, I knew you’d come.”
I stared at my feet.
McGarrett pushed open the fence, the rusted lock long broken. “I know why you came. I even expected it. I’m here for the same reason.”
I lowered my sword.
McGarrett stepped past me. We stared at the tunnel entrance. “Your dad was a brave man and an excellent hunter.”
Silence. I felt tears welling in my eyes. I tried holding them back.
“I’m going to destroy it.”
“I know.” McGarrett put a hand on my shoulder. “I know.”
And then the tears broke free.
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