Wordcount: 1,235 words
Summary: In which we introduce our setting and our rather surly protagonist Zee, who listens to the Local Alpha With No Name– but only barely.
Into the Woods
Rockfall was a small town, nestled into hills just shy of mountainous. Just far enough from the main highways to be quaint and rustic, without overly inconveniencing travelers looking for lunch or souvenirs. Rockfall had been a logging community once upon a time, but was now home to artisans, telecommuters, and retires who found the solitude pleasant rather than grating.
Eccentricity was the norm rather than the exception here, which was why the fact there was a light on in the metal smithing forge, well past midnight, was neither unexpected nor alarming for those close enough to see the glow. Old Lady Smith, whose profession had long ago become her name, always kept odd hours. And if the light was a little too blue and the flickers a little too fluid for fire, no one noticed.
Werewolves weren’t prone to sedentary lives, but that didn’t make it any less annoying when the local Alpha showed up on Zee’s doorstep asking him to go track down another wanderer.
“Who is it this time?” Not that it mattered really, Zee had more than enough practice tracking down everything from teens to the older wolves. Oddly it was the younger ones, those who had grown up in the last century that often proved harder to catch. Older wolves, still annoyed at the sudden dramatic technological shift were prone to retreating into less populated areas. Younger wolves could vanish into a city as easily as a countryside.
“Again?” It was the third time this year that the older wolf had wandered out of his pack’s territory and off the grid. “Are you sure you want him back?” It was an honest question, even if the Alpha gave him a sharp look. Sometime it was easier on everyone involved if they let someone go feral. The mountains might not be that impressive in terms of modern day travel, but they had more than enough room for a handful of wolves to vanish without a trace.
“He’s been gone three months,” the Alpha was very careful not to lend the information any more weight than it had inherently. “We need to know where he went and what he’s been doing.”
Three months meant Jon had long ago gone feral, or– Zee studied the wall just above the hotel’s mandatory fire extinguisher trying to lock down the sudden burst of adrenaline. The chances of a random accident killing him were so close to zero they weren’t worth considering and three thousand years of carefully weeding the human population meant there was even less chance of a premeditated death. Jon had either gone feral or gone over to another pack. Except the only other pack in the area didn’t exist, and hadn’t existed for decades.
“Are you up to this?” The Alpha didn’t look worried so much as wary. If Zee turned down the hunt the duty would fall to the Alpha next. Considering the reputation of the Ghost Pack, Zee wasn’t surprised.
“I’m fine.” Which was a bald faced lie, but the Alpha was too polite to comment; it was bad form to insult the cannon fodder after all. “I’ll leave tomorrow, that good?”
When you got right down to it, Zee didn’t report to the local Alpha, but neither of them was under the delusion that Zee had been dumped in a backwater pack to play sheepdog if his own Alpha was going to stand up for him. And Zee was pretty sure Donovan would be even less pleased with him if he screwed up his ‘chance to get his priorities straight.’ Even if it did mean following the dictates of someone several centuries his junior.
“Fine, just get back to me as soon as you have any information.” The local Alpha was also well aware of the basic power imbalance, and was just as careful not to push the issue. His request/order delivered, the Alpha headed back to the parking lot and back to his decidedly bland pseudo-suburban existence.
Zee waited until he heard the SUV start and then ambled back towards his room. They’d been discrete, as always, but he was still careful to note every possible target between the hallway and his equally drab hotel room. Humans were generally a pretty accepting lot, more than willing to ignore odd conversations or behavior slightly off the norm. But he’d grown up a very long time ago, when werewolves weren’t B-movie myths. Paranoia had kept him alive and he wasn’t willing to forgo the habit.
Back inside the hotel room he pulled out the documents the Alpha had provided. Jon had gone missing often enough that Zee had his own file on the older wolf, but it didn’t help to have a fresh trail to follow.
Like most of the older wolves Jon paid primarily in cash, which meant there wasn’t a credit card trail to follow. Nor a cell phone signal, which was often the easiest way to locate the runaways. Which meant Zee was down to following the patterns Jon had followed before. He sat down on the bed, which had been stripped of all but the fitted sheet and spread out his cache.
From the statements, he could tell the basic utilities had been paid six months ahead the week before Jon had left, which fit his established patterns. Of course that also indicated that Jon hadn’t been intending to return for another three months, which was significantly outside of the wolf’s normal wanderings. At most Jon had been gone for nine weeks, returning just in time to get the month’s bills in the mail before the late fee kicked in.
Also different was the fact that Jon had apparently given away his cat– at least as much as one could ‘give away’ a communal pet. He’d given the cat food, litter, and assorted toys to one of the younger wolves in the apartment complex. At the time it had seemed a reasonable request, but the wolf had quickly alerted the Alpha once it had become apparently this wasn’t one of Jon’s normal jaunts.
Zee frowned, the utilities seemed to fit the pattern, but add in the cat and it was starting to look less like Jon had been planning on coming back. Most likely he had paid the utilities forward simply to save the Alpha the hassle if he had problems finding a new tenant.
All of which were things wolves prone to going feral wouldn’t have considered. By the time werewolves were ready to make the break, they had normally cut ties to everyday life quite some time before. Bills would have gone unpaid, contact from other pack members ignored– the final step was often sudden and unexpected (although anticipated).
Which meant Jon probably hadn’t gone out with the intent of losing himself in the wild. Which is what Zee had been thinking even before he started looking through the rather sparse paper trails. He dropped the papers on the floor with an annoyed snort. Better to follow his instincts with this one, and his instincts were pushing him out the door. He turned it over in his head another few minutes, then rolled to his feet and started gathering his supplies.
Somewhere in the mountains was the answer to all the questions, about Jon, about the pack that didn’t exist, and dammed if he was going to wait until tomorrow to find them.