Cycles of Life
Shadow Hunters chapter 2
"You," Benedict hissed, stalking up to then glowering down at the monstrous wolf lazing at the foot of the old oak tree that was their meeting place, "You nearly got me into real trouble!" Waving his arm emphatically, he insisted, "It was a simple job, just a simple job you had to do. Lookout and observe, let me know how many and where. You don't even have to face them!"
'Oh do calm down,' Andrew replied, and one could almost hear him rolling his eyes by the tone of his thought-speech. 'We got them didn't we?'
"I," Benedict aggressively corrected with a scowl, "I got them, thank you very much."
With an exasperated flick of his bushy tail, the wolf stood up and turned away, muttering, 'Prissy hellshadow-hunting pretty boy.'
"I heard that, you arrogant walking throw rug," Benedict growled, nevertheless following after. He irritably pointed out, "I here your blazing thoughts, for goodness' sake."
'You say that like I'm supposed to be careful of what I say, or in this case think, around you,' Andrew drawled lazily, 'You know the drill, brother dear,' the wolf paused to allow Benedict to catch up enough to walk beside him, baring his teeth a moment at the human, 'Anytime and anywhere, I'll take on your knife and hands with my claws and teeth.'
"You would look rather nice hung up on my wall," Benedict mused, thoughtfully looking over Andrew's pelt.
'Anytime and anywhere,' he repeated. The wolf growled, a low rumble with a dangerous resonance.
But then there were muted cries a ways behind them, men brandishing weapons and torches, searching out the tracks they would not find. They'd come searching in great numbers, enough of them to spill over into the correct direction, never mind they didn't know it. And the brothers sped up, annoyed the silly gentlemen and valets had caught up enough within hearing distance at all. They walked the rest of their way in silence, in short order arriving at the street where they'd pre-arranged to meet their coach.
"Sir," greeted the driver, a hand rising to politely tip his cap.
Benedict nodded in reply, sparing a small smile of thanks before opening the door to the closed carriage and letting Andrew jump in before following into the cabin and closing the door behind them. The coach started off with a gentle sway, and Benedict reclined into the cushions, Andrew occupying the entire bench seat across from him.
'Ahhh,' Andrew gave a soft whine, snorting a little and flicking his tail, 'It seems your valet has been using this carriage again, Bene.' He made a show of sniffing over the cushions and poking his nose underneath the little pillows. 'That chamber-maid, what's her name? Clara, was it?' He wagged his tail, pushing at the pillows with one paw, 'Her scent is all over the place. Mmmm…'
"Shut up," Benedict snarled, eyes rolling with disgust as Andrew continued to make noises of interest. He barked, "Get laid or something, and don't talk to me about who my valet is playing with."
'As you know,' Andrew primly replied, looking up from the cushions but his tail still wagging, 'I am unable to seek such pleasures.' He huffed and returned to rooting around the carriage bench muttering, 'He's got the time and opportunity but does he actually do anything? Noooo… he tells me I ought to be the one seeking these pleasures of the flesh. Hmph! All those good looks our mother passed on, bless her soul, and what does he do with it?' Andrew snorted, ignoring the icy glare from across the cabin, 'Nothing. Absolutely nothing. It's a crying shame, I say…'
Benedict growled at him and he returned it at a much more interesting pitch and volume, without even looking up from the cushions. They bared their teeth at each other but eventually Benedict gave a snort and left him to it, pushing his brother's faint thought-speech from his mind and leaning back, thinking about the night's hunt. There was something bothering him about the two hell-shadows they'd defeated tonight, though he couldn't tell what just yet.
Soon, the coachman rapped on the carriage trap door signalling they were home. He called out a greeting and the attendant at the estate gate replied, Benedict watching as the man swung open the silent gates to let them by. Moments later they jerked to a stop before the front steps of their home, and there was a polite knock on the carriage door before it was flung open, a smiling servant bearing greetings and news that Miss Catherine awaited them in the main office.
"How was your evening?" Benedict politely asked their sister as he and Andrew came strolling into the office.
Catherine whirled to face them, both hands clutching sheets of paper, a glint of disgust in her eye. "Merchants!" She shrieked, "I hate them! We have our own ships, we manage our funds well and so we can afford to charge by quantity instead of quality." She gave the papers a wave through the air before setting them on the largest desk –Benedict's desk- and coming toward them. "Not to say that we don't provide a quality service, it merely means we build better relationships and don't charge them as much if they commit to purchasing further services in the future." She glowered, "It's not our ruddy problem if we're able to charge lower rates than most people. We aren't greedy!"
'Merchants, eh?' Andrew snorted, tail wagging with amusement at his sister's ranting. 'Scheming, conniving, penny-pinching lot.'
"Precisely!" Catherine snapped, warming to her subject. "They're bad enough on their own but when they band together, they're positively nasty."
Benedict and Andrew froze in their tracks before her. The wolf gave a soft, sympathetic whine and Benedict asked curiously, "Band together?"
"They were making silly noises about forcing the Dock-masters to create groups to classify shipping fleet sizes, and charge a new docking tax accordingly." She waved her hand dismissively, "You know, the Dock-masters already levy different charges; larger charges the larger the ship. But today they were talking about a new charge for bigger cooperatives in order that the 'richer don't grow richer while the poorer only grow poorer' or some such." She plunked her hands down on her hips and scowled, "What a crock of rubbish, I say. And then they brought in a lawyer…"
"Do you have all the paperwork?" Benedict asked worriedly, "You didn't say anything, did you?"
"Of course not," Catherine rolled her eyes at him, gesturing to the pile she had just left on his desk. "I didn't argue with them outright, I know better than that." She sighed as she turned toward the fireplace and plunked down into her chair, "I just wish I could have told them where to stuff the papers." She waved a listless hand, "I read through it all, I have some ideas on what can and should be done. But yes, I was careful to let them continue thinking that I am merely a secretary helping my dear brothers run the family business." She smiled tiredly at Andrew who padded over to lie down by her feet, curling up between her and the hearth.
"I am sorry you must continue to let us take the credit for your good work," Benedict apologised as he reached for their special-store bottle behind the little potted plant on the mantel. He gave her a smile before shaking the bottle and angling it before the hearth fire to inspect how much there was left of the rare brandy.
"Can't really complain when you both have let me manage your shares," Catherine smiled. "Your trust in me to run not only the business but your interest in it means more to me than you will ever know." She wrinkled her nose a bit and gave a small shudder, adding, "And I'll leave you two to the hunting any day." She tilted her head at the brandy bottle and declared, "But I lay down three merchants and one lawyer in favour of the last serving of brandy."
"I'll take your three merchants and one lawyer, and raise you two hell shadows," Benedict returned.
"You win," she conceded immediately then worriedly asked, "I thought there was only one, what happened?" She kicked off her shoes and wiggled her toes at Andrew's furry tail.
"That household had been having trouble for a few weeks, as you know," Benedict said as he poured the brandy. "Minor trouble, misunderstandings, tempers flaring, the usual sort." He handed his sister her glass and poured his own. "But, like all the others, odd illnesses and bad dreams." He tucked the brandy bottle back up into its hiding place before taking his seat. "It takes a while for things to go overly wrong, for all the little things to add up to something big. The Shadows eat persistently within a single dwelling, familiarity and time making their presence obvious but also better able to avoid us when we come after them." He sighed as he propped his feet up, "but in this case, we've been tracking what we thought was one large Shadow for quite a while now."
"Since the Bravingtons," Catherine nodded. "I remember."
"Yes." Benedict rubbed at his brow, rolling his glass in his hand. "But there were two, which makes a little more sense since they were so difficult to track and find since the beginning. They've been leading us a merry chase." He glanced at his wolf-brother who paused at playfully swiping Catherine's foot and returned the look.
'But that does not explain why we have not since the beginning been able to tell there were two,' Andrew supplied. 'I know you agree with me on this –it's highly unusual to not be able to sense their distinct presences, the separate identities.'
"Indeed," Benedict muttered, tossing back a quarter of his drink in one go.
"Do you suppose one joined up with the other somewhere since the Bravington's?" Catherine asked, taking a small sip of her drink. "The partnership might be a recent one."
"I thought that," Benedict said, staring into the fire, "But moments into the battle with them, I knew. They have the same presence together as I had sensed before. And the way they behaved, it was as though they could not be parted." Benedict took a swallow of his brandy, "One snuck up from behind me to try as a distraction to try and free his companion. I have never seen such a thing before."
'They are supposedly half-minded and vicious things,' Andrew agreed, 'They scatter once discovered and drawn out, every Shadow for himself.' He gave a soft whine before turning to look at Benedict over his shoulder, 'These tonight preferred to be captured together than be separated. It was more than a little strange, yes?'
Benedict nodded, "Things haven't been the same since Torian… died." There would always be that pause in Benedict's voice whenever he spoke of his lost friend. The three glanced at each other, sharing a moment of silence.
'Ebhor certainly whines about it enough,' Andrew commented later, faint amusement in his 'voice'. 'Non-stop complaints about what a waste it was to train someone so gifted only for it all to be sacrificed for love.' But there was no disapproval in his voice, in fact there was a touch of admiration and a little envy. 'I don't know if it's a blessing or a shame Torian had no family to leave behind. No one but those who worked with him and his friends will remember what he did. Even she whom he sacrificed for remembers no more.'
"We're enough," Benedict murmured, gazing into the fire and lifting his glass up for a sip. "And since Her Highness has departed the country we can soon begin to document his efforts. He will remembered."
"I wish I'd known him better," Catherine said with a small frown on her pretty face. She yawned and sleepily eyed Andrew on the floor.
Benedict's lips twisted and his expression changed as he gave himself a mental shake. "In any case, we'll need to ask Ebhor more about what happened tonight. And to request more sand from the Third Gate," he commented, "I'm down to the last two pouches of the stuff."
'He'll scold you again for wasting the Dream Sand,' Andrew warned, making Benedict scowl. But his attention diverted as Catherine pushed her toes into the fur at his belly.
He obligingly rolled onto his side for her, propping her feet up on his stomach. He lay his head back on the floor, ears flopping open to high points. When Catherine smiled, he pawed at the air and opened his mouth in a wolf-smile to let his long tongue sag to one side, giving him a lazily comical look which drew a laugh from her.
Benedict rolled his eyes at his brother's efforts cheer Catherine. So the gestures were working but honestly…! He grumbled, "Sometimes I can't recall if you're a man cursed to be a wolf or a wolf cursed to be a man."
Andrew gave a soft whuff of annoyance but otherwise they ignored him.
Minutes later, after they'd finished their brandy, Catherine bid them good night and went to bed, thoughtfully locking the door behind her. Andrew growled as he pulled out a large bedroll from its place beside the hearth with his teeth, nosed it out to unroll then stretched out by the fire to get some sleep. Benedict commandeered the comfortable lounging couch by the East window, the picture of the gigantic wolf sleeping by the formal office fireplace fading into blurs as he fell into slumber of his own.
When the sunshine threatened, the first rays of light falling on Benedict's face, he woke and rubbed his eyes then slowly stood to fetch a large blanket.
When the sunshine poured fully through and directly into the room, the rays extended abnormally toward the sleeping figure by the hearth. There, a new light blossomed and seemed to brighten the place unnaturally for a few moments before receding to leave only natural light and, in place of a wolf, there lay a tall and well-built man. Benedict solemnly stepped forward to crouch and wrap the blanket around his brother, his arms lingering a moment in an embrace.
He brushed the red-brown curls away from Andrew's face with gentle fingers, a soft smile playing at his lips. It was always good, each time, to have his brother's true form returned to him every morning. To appreciate this would always be tradition for them.
Andrew, while cursed to walk the night as a wolf, was still alive after all.