, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Chapter One

The sun was falling behind us as we raced through the turns leading from town. Soon it would be night. The night was never to our advantage. Always to theirs. We needed to find a place to hide.

“I’ve never been this far out before,” Jennifer said as we passed a pasture of grazing cattle. I could see the shifting shadows of the surrounding trees stretching across the road as the sun continued to dip lower.

“Me either,” I replied. I was lying, of course, and I knew if she’d detected my lie, she would never trust me again. Still, I did it anyway.

“Do you know where you’re going?” she mumbled. Even at only a sip, she had swallowed far too much of the Speckled Tail American Whiskey and was beginning to falter in her speech.

“I have an idea,” I answered, “but I’m not entirely sure. How much of that stuff did you drink?”

“I don’t know. I can’t remember.” She rested her head against the window. “How did you know to go for that sword?”

“I just knew.”

A moment of silence passed between us.

“When we get a little further out of town,” I said, breaking the quiet, “I’m going to pull over so you can puke. You’re gonna have to try to puke. You have to get that out of you. I mean, you saw what it will do.”

“I know,” she said, “Just keep driving.”

“I love you,” I said, but she didn’t answer.

What is Michigan that it would be home to such things? We have lakes, temperamental weather, and micro brewers, but not much else. And so, what I’m about to share, you’d expect to discover only in movies. Popcorn in hand, the silver screen glows with scenes of a distant village settled in a remote English countryside. But here we are in Michigan sparring the same hidden powers written into scripts—and we’re doing so for our very lives.

I’d caught a glimpse of the bottle of Speckled Tail that was insistently served in a rock glass to me and my three companions, two of whom are no longer with us—or at least not as you’d expect for them to be. Being the enjoyer of whiskey that I am, I reached for my phone and tapped a casual scroll in search of the whiskey’s origins, hoping to find it sourced by a reputable distillery.

“Are you calling someone?” Vistus, our host, asked abruptly.

“Just seeing if any of my online friends have written about this stuff,” I replied. “I’ve never heard of it.”

“But I never told you what it was,” he said.

“I’m observant,” I volleyed in response. Again, I’d already noticed the bottle. It rested on an end table partially shadowed by a suit of armor clutching a sword and serving as sentry to a nearby fireplace.

“It is very rare,” he said, giving a grin. “In all my years, few have consumed it.” As far as I knew in that moment, he was right. I found a singular mention by an obscure religious group in Florida, but otherwise, the internet was silent—completely empty of mentions from anyone.

Vistus spoke as three of his four guests tasted the whiskey. I was uneasy. I didn’t want what was in the glass before me. I continued to scroll, but only to bide time. As I did, Vistus shared a lengthy history with his guests, which I’ll relay to you in a moment.

“It is an unfortunate impression you convey, Reverend,” Vistus said, stopping mid-story. “Will you not receive the gift I’ve set before you?”

I could no longer avoid a sip. I gave a stiffened smile and sniffed.

A nose of unnatural caramel and chocolates rose from my glass. Both scents were rich, but also very stale. I could tell I’d soon be tasting artificial flavorings.

The others sipped and gave polite smiles. Even Jennifer smiled. She betrayed her fear, barely getting a coating on her tongue. I sipped, too. The palate offered syrupy coverings of the candies from the nose, but not enough to hide the bitter tinge of alcohol and a distinct saltiness.

It was bloodlike.

I don’t know the whiskey’s finish. I didn’t swallow. I spit it from my mouth and knocked the glass from Jennifer’s hand. I knew what we were drinking wasn’t natural.

The two beside us, both of whom had so nervously consumed nearly all within their glasses—began to convulse.

“A rather abrupt response to my hospitality,” our host said, furrowing his brow and giving a simper wide enough to allow a sharpening canine tooth to emerge. “And very unwise.”

The next few moments were less cordial—and very violent—far too violent to describe here.

Now we’re on the run.

Recalling the history Vistus had shared, it would seem that our immediate troubles have their roots in the dark woodlands of Eastern Europe, set back from society, and yet not necessarily apart from it. Vistus spoke of the ones he called the Brethren. In the daylight, clustered at the outskirts of villages, they lived as gypsy traders. At night, they slunk stealthily through the small towns feasting. Some, however, were mindful to engage in planting seeds of their unrighteousness in the schools, courts, and churches.

By this, they labored to become a part of society.

It wasn’t until the early 1400’s that the Brethren found themselves pit against the mortals and nearing extinction. Many were being revealed, hunted, and killed. Their numbers were dwindling. Survival required reform. Mortals could no longer be their primary source of food.

A powerful faction bearing a fiercely loyal ideology arose among them. They would abstain from mortal contact completely. If they continued to collide with man, they believed extinction to be all but certain.

And they were right. Those who remained among men were lost.

The Brethren preached this new way, and those who would not follow were dispatched. Either they accepted the new way, or they were devoured. Those who managed to escape were revealed to the mortals. Mankind, lost in its own superstitions, could always be trusted to hunt and slay them. The remnant, about 100 in all, believed the time for coexistence would one day return.

A hundred years passed before a contingent crossed the ocean bearing the same hope to the New World.

In the newly established American colonies, they continued to wrestle against their natural appetites, eventually finding it necessary to venture away from the settlements and into the undiscovered reaches of the country. They settled into an obscurity in the Appalachian highlands. There they would feed on the wildlife and safely avoid human contact. But soon the American population increased and spread across the mountains forcing them into migratory patterns, all to avoid detection.

In their travels, it wasn’t uncommon for someone to discover them. A Native American, a mountaineer seeking fortune or adventure, a religious group seeking a monastic life, of these there were some who would be found alone on the wrong face of the mountain. Each would be captured. Each would be offered the Speckled Tail and a place among the Brethren. It was through this whiskey that you became a werewolf. You cannot become one by accident. A bite will not do it. That’s foolishness, anyway. In a lycanthropic state, it is impossible for a werewolf to decide to do anything but indulge fully in the old way.

You become a werewolf by choice. It’s always by choice.

You must accept the whiskey as the way of immortality, or refuse it. But refusing the Speckled Tail was as equally welcomed by the Brethren as accepting it. A refusal brought about a savage carnival of darker things.

Few refused the whiskey. The fear of death against the promise of immortality almost always stirred the murkier desires of men’s hearts, and once the whiskey had brought about the change, ultimately removing the victim’s soul, nothing of regret remained.

Over the years, the Brethren’s numbers began to grow. With such evangelical success, one would have thought that the time for integration was drawing near. Still, with technology advancing and pushing the populations further west, they soon realized that seclusion in large numbers would be impossible. In the winter of 1830, they elected to divide. Five hundred would press to the west while the rest would divide among the mountains and the flatlands of the Midwest.

A good number found a suitable home in Michigan.

It is now 2019. They have settled and their numbers have grown. The time for hiding was coming to an end. The time to return to the old way was on the horizon.

Jennifer and I know them. I have refused the Speckled Tail American Whiskey and lived. I don’t yet know how things will unfold, but I know that I can make them known. And they they know it, too.

They cannot allow it. They will not allow it.

I do hope that very soon I’ll be able to tell you more, but until then, you mustn’t blink at what I’ve shared. And I beg you, if you behold the Speckled Tail American Whiskey in the home of your host, there’s only one thing for you to do.